*This is not a traditional review, so don’t expect much in the way of summary (I hate summary in any reviews, really, because it makes them seem like junior high book reports). My articles are meant for people who have seen the movie and have a decent memory of it.
**Also, I typically don’t refer to character names. So when I write “DiCaprio” I’m really referring to the character he played.
A Master Playing in the Sewer
Shutter Island was a critical (68% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercial success (at the time, it was Scorsese’s biggest hit), so how can I refer to it as even slightly underrated? Well, because of the first note I typed when re-watching it: “It’s great when such a cast and crew decide to make a genre film.” What a bullshit, backhanded thing to write about an interesting, beautiful, and effective film. And I’m not alone.
The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states that it “may not rank with Scorsese’s best work, but…” Is that how we judge films? I’m a firm believer in judging a movie on its own. It’s okay to make comparisons to other films, especially if there is a connection. But being made by the same director isn’t a good enough connection. I’m guilty of this, by the way. I’m sure if I go through my Paul Thomas Anderson reviews, I’ll find something along the lines of, “It’s no There Will Be Blood, but…” It’s simply an unfair way to judge movies. How can I compare Shutter Island to Goodfellas or Taxi Driver? The reason why those three films would be discussed within the same article is Scorsese. It wouldn’t have anything to do with style or themes. And if it did, it would be a bit of a stretch.
So Shutter Island is underrated, because even those who praised it typically did so with a caveat. Scorsese is taking a break from ambitious movies to have fun with a genre film, e.g. And then there’s the twist, revealing that the whole film was an exercise for DiCaprio to face what he had done or end up getting lobotomized. Critics either thought it was a good twist, or they claim it wasn’t a good enough pay off. I never thought the twist was the point. If we’re going to focus on such a master dwelling in the sewer of a genre film, then shouldn’t we revel in the filmmaking and not the twist. That’s what I did in my original review, and watching it again, the little elements are what kept me interested.
Can You Judge a Twist if You Know It’s Coming Before You Watch the Film?
I’m one of those annoying people who read the book a movie is based on then claim that the book is better. While that is still the case for the most part, there have been exceptions, Shutter Island being one of them. Liking the book more isn’t the point here, however. Since I read the book, I knew what the twist was when I first watched the movie. Therefore it’s impossible for me to really judge how good the twist is. To me, it’s painfully obvious fairly early, but I was looking for it. That said, this movie takes place at a mental institution and any show or movie that takes place in such a location usually ends up being a movie in which things are not as they seem.
For that reason, I kind of hate mental institution movies. They can be exhausting, and they seem to be the same: person visits asylum, ends up stuck there, uncovers vast conspiracy/corruption, is accused of being crazy, saves the day and/or destroys the asylum. Shutter Island doesn’t follow this exactly, but it’s close. But I still love it, and it’s because I already knew the twist.
The film ends up being different for me because I wasn’t trying to figure out who to trust or whatever the whole time. Instead, I was looking for the clues Scorsese included and his filmmaking technique in general to create a paranoid mood.
The use of music at the beginning is the most obvious clue, in my opinion. As they approach, dread-inducing music plays very loudly. Sure, it could just be setting up bad stuff ahead, but I believe it’s in DiCaprio’s subconscious because he knows he’s actually a patient there. I comment on the music quite a bit in my original review, and my thoughts remain the same: it’s a great score that is effective and noticeable without being overbearing.
Camera techniques are used to create a sense of paranoia, as well. Specifically, whip pans are employed throughout. It’s a disorienting technique, and it almost makes it seem like things appear out of nowhere, which must be a bit like DiCaprio’s state of mind. Along with the camerawork, the editing in general is similar, with quick cuts to images from DiCaprio’s mind throughout.
Finally, Scorsese’s use of continuity errors is particularly interesting. Scorsese, or his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, I should say, is no stranger to continuity errors. I’m always reminded of a shot in The Departed showing Nicholson walking, his back to the camera, obviously smoking. When the shot switches to the front, he is no longer smoking. That kind of thing is pretty normal for Scorsese’s more chaotic films. Referring specifically to The Wolf of Wall Street, but applying to any of Scorsese’s less restrained films, Schoonmaker said, “continuity in a movie like this really doesn’t matter.” It has become kind of a trademark for Scorsese films, which makes Shutter Island an interesting example.
With Shutter Island, many of the continuity errors are intentional, the most notable of which being the scene when a patient being interviewed requests a glass of water. A full glass of water is handed to her, but when she brings it up to drink her hand is clearly empty, then she sets down an empty glass. There are more, but that one sticks out to me, and it’s a great example of using, or misusing, continuity to create a sense of things being off. It’s also convenient for the filmmaker, since every error can be claimed to be intentional now.
I know all this continuity stuff can be boring, but when you watch a lot of movies, you tend to notice this stuff. And when you’re watching a Scorsese movie featuring a mentally unstable main character, noticing this stuff is the reward of a close viewing. Here’s a video going into more detail about the glass of water scene, which focuses on the use of fire and water in the film, which is something I did not pick up on nearly as much as the creator of the video, but I completely agree with.
Shutter Island is a great example of a twist ending not being the most important part of the movie. And when you look back at all the clues, it doesn’t seem like much a twist at all, because the movie is told from DiCaprio’s perspective. He may not notice these clues, but the viewer might, which makes Shutter Island an interesting, entertaining watch, regardless of whether you knew the twist or not.
Most of my articles from the last few months are about movies with characters suffering from PTSD. Aside from the William Friedkin article, this is not intentional, but here we are again with DiCaprio’s multiple flashbacks to his experiences liberating a concentration camp in WWII.
First off, I’m going to try to take a break from movies featuring this subject, since it’s almost becoming my trademark or something. But since it’s there, I can’t ignore it, especially since I think it plays a bigger factor than many give it credit for.
Since the focus of DiCaprio’s problems is on his wife and their children, his experience in the war is cast aside. I agree that his wife is the primary issue here, but his WWII experience, I believe, leads him to make the decision he makes at the end.
DiCaprio basically agrees to be lobotomized because the treatment worked, and he remembered what had happened with his wife and children. He feels responsible for all of it. So he asks Ruffalo if it’s better “to live as a monster or die a good man.” He makes this choice partially because of his WWII experience. He has seen monsters, and he cannot be one himself.
I love the aesthetic experience of the film. The imagery, camerawork, and music are all on point.
The WWII in particular stuck with me. The Nazi slowly dying from a “botched” suicide attempt, the flying papers, the music, etc. It was all very eerie. But that tracking shot of the execution of the guards always bothered me. Unless the guards only started shooting one right after the other rather than en masse, then the shot makes no sense. The way it is presented, the shooting starts with DiCaprio’s section, then as the camera makes its way down the line the other soldiers begin shooting, which means that last soldier stood there while shooting was happening and waited about a half minute to start shooting. It just doesn’t make sense. But as I wrote about the continuity stuff, something occurred to me: this isn’t necessarily how things happened. This is how DiCaprio remembers it happening. If that’s the case, then the camera moving is DiCaprio reliving the shooting, so it happens the way his brain creates it.
Ebert liked it!
Watching in the theater was great, mainly for the sound. I remember that score just blasting through the speakers as they approached the asylum.
Ted Levine! But he’s barely in it.
The movie is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Everything keeps adding up, but it’s because DiCaprio wants it to. It’s actually an indictment of conspiracy theories. You would have to be crazy to make everything fit your own story to justify your existence.