Shutter Island (US 2010)

The opening of Shutter Island – an allusion to Taxi Driver?

I’m surprised that Shutter Island has done so well at the box office. There were only a handful of people in my local 400 seat cinema for a teatime showing – but it’s already taken $200 million globally. Perhaps I’m under-estimating the general cinema audience? I was prepared for something that might be problematic when I read a couple of blogs that suggested that you need to see the film at least twice before it is possible to write sensibly about it. I think that is probably correct – so I’m just going to make some general comments and hope that others join in and enlighten me for future viewings. I’m not sure I want to see the film again just yet.

If you don’t already know the set-up, it’s 1954 and Federal Marshal Leonardo Dicaprio is charged with investigating the disappearance of a female inmate from the secure unit for the criminally insane on isolated Shutter Island.

In a way, the ‘meta film’, the discourse around it, seems to be similar in structure to the film itself in that it’s hard to distinguish real analysis from all the games critics and commentators are playing in discussing what does or does not happen. On the one hand, the movie buffs are all playing spot the reference and on the other the fans of popular cinema are divided as to whether the film is brilliant or tosh. One critical decision is straightforward. It’s a beautifully mounted film, with terrific design, lighting, camerawork and editing and a bevy of talented players under the control of Hollywood’s current most skilled practitioner. It’s gripping for 2 and a quarter hours and it leaves you with lots of questions.

I’d like to play the references game first. I ‘felt’ rather than observed Sam Fuller and Michael Powell. I’ve since seen a review which refers to a Fuller-Powell-Ray mash-up (on the Auteurs blog). Yes, could be, but the Ray which came to my mind (and I have no real idea why) was On Dangerous Ground – possibly because I was thinking about how much Robert Ryan would have added to the film. Scorsese is reported as mentioning Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and Dr Caligari. There is also a line of dialogue that points directly to Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate. And, of course, the film is awash with Hitchcock, especially Spellbound and Vertigo. It really is a pleasure just to admire the beauty of the sets and the settings – the interior of the lighthouse, the cigarette still smouldering on the cliff-top edge. In the image below, we see Ruffalo and DiCaprio on the ship in the first sequence. I’m not sure that I’ve got the right image, but there is a strong sense here that we are being offered one of Hitchcock’s back projection scenes which in films like Marnie are weird because they aren’t necessary with modern production techniques. It’s almost as if Marty was inviting us into his dream about 1940s/50s cinema.

Is this 'real' or a contrived 1950s back projection shot?

But it’s also Hitchcock that sets me wondering about the weakness of the film and that’s my problem with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not that he’s a bad actor and in fact he performs very well. It’s more that he just isn’t a Hitchcockian leading man. He’s not suave enough to be Cary Grant, liberal enough to be Henry Fonda or bewildered enough to be James Stewart. He’s not handsome enough and/or not mean enough. The other possibility is to be less ‘starry’ and more bland (which can also become mean). I’m thinking here of Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane in Kiss Me Deadly or any of Fuller’s leading men.

Fuller’s Shock Corridor:

Robert Ryan in Crossfire:

. . . and On Dangerous Ground:

Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly:

Vertigo and Spellbound (with a bit more Dali):

Stairs, slats, light, shadows – trapped above the pit (see Kiss Me Deadly and Vertigo).

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate – the Korean brain-washing sequence:

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past – the sublime Robert Mitchum:

and finally Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman:

So, all you have to do is to imbibe these wonderful scenes and then watch Shutter’s Island, blocking out DiCaprio and imagining Robert Ryan or Ralph Meeker instead.

If all Marty has done is to remind us of the power of cinema in its true nightmare period, he’s done something.

I need to see the film again before I can tackle the music.

Production notes and hi-res stills

8 thoughts on “Shutter Island (US 2010)

  1. I found the film impressive technically, but the narrative is rather over the top: as is the music, especially in the early stages. And I get an impression [stronger than in earlier films] that DiCapio is trying to model himself on Jack Nicholson: but he does not have that actors range or panache.

    What really struck me was the problematic values of the film. Several reviews have picked up on how the film plays with the Holocaust. But another facet are the references to HUAC, the Cold War and the conformist politics of the 1950s. I thought the Holocaust did not fare too badly because the plot confirms that it actually happened and it was horrific. However, I thought the plot rather undermined the question of US domestic reaction in the decade. I think this partly depends on how you read the film and the ending. The whole plot could just be the fertile imaginings of a deranged mind. More likely audiences will see some of the plot as ‘reality’ and some as hallucinations. I felt the ending offered several possibilities.

    The conspiracy suggested involving HUAC actually exists and it is all a set-up. However, why does our hero seem to accpet the brutal operation that is clearly signalled? Maybe guilt over his wife or over the events at Dachau.

    A more likely reading is that the delusions posited by the doctors are actual. One possible reading is that he has indeed relapsed and is beyond help. However, his last line, which I think included – ‘die as a good man or live as a monster’, would provide a motive. The other is that he has not relapsed, and again this is a sacrifice due to his feelings of guilt.

    I reckon only in the first reading are the references to HUAC, CIA conspiracies endorsed. In the other two they are examples of paranoia and conspiracy theories. Given the references also include Soviet and Korean ‘torture and brainwashing’, and I think the film ends up with a rather conservative presentation of the 1950s.

    The parallel to Shock Corridor seems to me instructive. In that film the KKK are part of an inmate’s paranoia, but this seems shocking because the characters seems to know what a nasty bunch they are. Somehow this is missing from Shutter Island.

    One other point, following the conventions of modern Hollywood, the obvious villains in the piece are Europeans, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow!

  2. I’d like to add two or three more film references which I think I spotted in “Shutter Island”. Firstly, on Marshal Teddy Daniels’ arrival on the island, he takes a shower. During this sequence, Scorsese gives us the classic vertical shower head shot, straight out of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). Later, when Daniels goes into the lake after his daughter, we have an echo of the beginning of Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973). Then, at the end of this sequence, we discover that his daughter is wearing red shoes. Surely,this is Scorsese’s “homage”, to Powell and Pressburger’s “Red Shoes” (1948).

  3. It is a film that keeps throwing up ‘deja vu’ moments. How about a non-cinematic one: Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’?

    1. On your blog you refer to the film in terms of postmodernity:

      What’s the purpose of all these allusions? Is it simply to make us admire Scorsese’s, and our own, cineliteracy? If that’s the case then we can accuse the film of postmodern frippery and forget it; that’s certainly my feeling.

      It occurred to me that this is what lies behind Keith’s question about the film’s ideological status and its referencing of the Cold War, Dachau etc. I don’t think that these references are meant to be cultural referents for ‘real world’ events as such, but rather simply referents to film noir as a genre or B pictures as an institutional category. I don’t know what Scorsese is trying to do, but it seems that he wants to present us with a kind of essay on American Cinema. I’m not sure that this is conscious ‘postmodernism’ – it could be part of Scorsese’s attempt to preserve cinematic heritage by exploring the aesthetic, generic and institutional heritage of Hollywood.

  4. A gripping tw+ hours with Scorcese trailing invitations to suspend disbelief yet keeping this member of the audience suspended on that boudary. Apart from his curious conviction that DiCaprio is the new Di Nero it is excellent casting because DiCaprio still carries the uncorrupted hero signifier.

    My reading of the plot at the end is almost childishly straigthforward. We have spent our collective time inside an extremely brilliantly realised psychotic fantasy. “Shutter Island” does not exist outside the psychosis – any more than “Teddy Danials” does. In the final frames DiCaprio walks out of the picture accompanied by neat white uiformed staff in a well ordered landscape in sunshine – virtually the first sun we have seen in the whole film. The backdrop is a conventional upmarket mental instiution – no “C” Block in sight. If I could still read a book I’d love to read the original novel for the plot twists and references.

    As I understand it, part of the power of pysychosis is that although it has repression and denial at is core it contains and feeds on real events or repoorted reality. “Just vecause your paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you” never seemed truer. *Teddy*’s imagined biography is fitted into a ludidly imagined and jumbled frame of significant external events – that happen to be true.

    Sorry Keith – I find it a fine conceit where the “hero” is the “villain” and the “villains” anre the “heroes”. And, after Freud, Adler and Jung do not find the idea of european psychiatrists at the head of affairs in immediate post-war Amerika psychiatric practice too unlikely. And it is pitched at exactly the cusp of the revolution in psychiatric theory and practice. But Von Syndow trails his own delightfully misleading cultural baggage as an actor.

    I will not attempt to add to the growing compendium of filmic references but will say it made me think of William Golding’s “Pincher Martin” and, by extension, of “Donny Darko”.

    Film is the ultimate fictional vehicle and Scorcese used its capacity for hyper-realist devices to lure us into a mental nightmare of great power and credibility. Or maybe I should get out more?

    Please excuse the terrible mis-spelling throuout this piece.

  5. My earlier comments about the ending were thoughts about how audiences might read the films. From that point of view, whether Scorsese was consciously referencing older movies or not is less relevant. Moreover, referencing other movies can just become a game of ‘spot the homage’!
    For me the film plays with HUAC, US Secret Service villainy and the generally reactionary climate of the early 1950s. And I don’t think the film actually references the other types of classics, the anti-communist narratives, like The Woman on Pier 13? Or did someone spot one of these?

    As for heroes and villains, my point was that it is almost a convention in modern Hollywood that the nastier characters are Europeans. And for most of the movie this applies to the doctors in the Institution. In the dialogue we get references both to the repression by HUAC and other repression by the Soviets and the Koreans. The last two examples are not disavowed in the way I think the film disavows the HUAC example.
    As with their Presidents, very few US films can indict their own institutions: it is nearly always the odd villainous character.

    1. Yes in general I absolutely agree about the inability of the dominant USA cultural practitioners to view the world through any other lens than that of American Exceptionalism (a view only exceeded by notions of Israeli exceptionalism?). Saw The Hurt Locker the other day and was culturally underwhelmed – as another cycle of “grunt” movies – this time “terror wars” in place of Vietnam – begins. But see also Spielberg’s actors saving civilisation in various theatres of war on TV.

      Years ago, when I used to camp on one of the Scilly out islands for holidays, one summer a large USAF family arrived and set up camp. As they settled in the amazingly large number of children began a game of cowboys and Indians. But instead of drawing up “sides” they all pretended to be on the same side, “killing” innumerable invisible “enemies” and acting out histrionic fallings-down for the benefit of the others kids. It was a moment deeply instructive of the Amerikan psyche.

      But while I agree about their blind sidedness I think, in my reading of Shutter Island all these fragments of external, political reality (HUAC, the gulag, etc) are just reinforcing fuel for the paranoid personality refuge the character is inhabiting. But you will say that there is no text without a subtext and are probably right.

  6. So, I still find the way the film treats historical events problematic. Just to take the Holocaust. In one flashback to Buchenwald [I think that is the camp] we see what is effectively a war crime by US soldiers. However, later in the film Di Caprio appears to be absolved when Kingsley tells him that he ‘probably’ did not shoot the German soldiers. It all seems part of the larger representation which sites evil outside the USA, imagined by a psychotic.
    As for the ‘post-modern’ aspect, I don’t use the term and one of the abiding characteristics it appears to identify is the tendency to depoliticise issues. Surely what happens in this film.
    Regarding the plot, the opening has been bugging me. We, the audience, are launched into a ship in a storm tossed sea. Presumably a metaphor for what follows. However, in terms of plot, if this is all a device by the doctors I cannot believe they would go to the extreme of taking him off the Island to then return. Presumably unecesary if his state is as psychotic as suggested. So perhaps the whole film, as suggested, is an hallucination. But that only aggravates the values, which appear rather reactionary.
    As for Scorsese. Does he keep working with DiCaprio because the latter guaranteees substantial funding for the films? I don’t think his acting is up to earlier Scorsese films, and the most recent films are also less subvervive than those of old.

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