#3 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This movie’s ending is a case study in how to read movies. If you consider what was said before, what was done before, and the basics of the character’s journey, there is literally only one way to read the movie’s final moments. Everything up to that moment builds to the finale is designed to feed a specific end point, and it helps the movie as a whole that everything up to that point is incredibly well done. Scorsese had one early foray into big budget filmmaking with New York, New York, which wasn’t really any kind of success, but his turn into big budget filmmaking with another two decades of experience under his belt has been far more successful as he is able to still coax quality performances from his actors while working with more traditionally narrative based scripts (this time based on a novel by Dennis Lehane) and much more intricate and larger production design.
Off the coast of Massachusetts lays Shutter Island, an old Civil War fort that has been repurposed into a mental hospital for the criminally insane. A mystery pops up when one of their patients has disappeared from her cell and two US Marshals arrive on the ferry. These are Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The movie begins with ominous tones from the soundtrack as the ferry emerges from the fog, and Teddy is having trouble with sea sickness. Getting on the island, everything feels off from the get go. The guards are watching them too closely. They’re required to give up their firearms. They’re not allowed to see any of the hospital personnel files. There’s a German doctor of high position less than a decade after the end of World War II. The guards don’t even seem interested in looking for the lost patient. Patients and personnel all seem coached and artificial, and behind it all is Dr. Cawley (Ben Kinglsey).
Nothing about the story of Rachel Solando disappearing from her cell makes any sense, up to and including the need to send for US Marshals and to hamstring them from any kind of real investigation at the same time. How could she have gotten by so many orderlies? How could she vanish for so long without her shoes? How could she wander the grounds without shoes at all considering the rough terrain of the island? The staff, in particular Dr. Cawley, are obviously hiding something from Teddy, and Teddy’s going to figure it out.
He and Chuck are not long term partners, Chuck having met Teddy for the first time on the boat, so Teddy tells Chuck his real reason for taking the case. He’s heard things about Shutter Island, stemming from stories he’s heard about the man who lit the fire in the apartment building he was living in that killed his wife. He’s there, but there have also been tales of sick experiments being run on the patients, particularly in Ward C built from the actual fort while the rest of the hospital was made of the troops’ barracks. Teddy’s going to get to the bottom of this and blow the whole thing up to the world.
It’s a paranoia infested plot that involves anti-communist agents, young and innocent socialists, and a power mad doctor, and it’s all in Teddy’s mind.
The main strength of this movie really is Teddy’s descent into madness and how it’s masked for so long as a him getting closer to the truth. That manifests in particular through memories and dreams. Teddy was a soldier in World War II and helped liberate Dachau, and he’s consumed by the memory of the commandant killing himself poorly and dying in a pool of his own blood as well as the piles of bodies in the ice and snow and his part in the quick execution of the SS guards. He also has dreams of his departed wife in their apartment. There’s a mysterious presence of water, and her back is hollowed out and ashy from fire as she crumbles in his arms.
As the story progresses and Teddy becomes convinced that Dr. Cawley is feeding him drugs in the food, water, and even cigarettes, the visions become more pronounced in his waking life. His wife and a little girl appear before him, and he talks to them directly without anyone else seeing them. However, because the movie is told really strictly from Teddy’s point of view we don’t have any other information until later that the exact opposite is happening, that he’s in withdrawal from the drugs that he had been on before a couple of days before.
The reveal at the end in the much talked about lighthouse is a gut punch. The true nature of Teddy’s sickness, the true history of his wife and how she died, it’s all inexorably tied to what we’ve seen before, and the audience wants to reject that reality as much as Teddy does. It’s horrible what Teddy went through, and his insistence on living in a fantasy world of Nazi experiments suddenly makes so much more sense.
Now, the reading of the ending. There’s really only one interpretation of Teddy’s final choice. If we have all this talk of running from the past, of having a choice of becoming a monster or staying a good man, what possible explanation could there be other than Teddy is completely self-aware when he says the fateful words that lead to the final surgery? If not, then the rest of the movie was just a series of random events that don’t mean anything, but if those events do mean something then the ending means that Teddy is making his choice in full command of his facilities. He’s faced with the truth of his actions, of his past, and of his wife, and he can’t take it. He can either descend back into madness or he can remove himself from that completely, and he chooses removal.
This is such a natural follow up to The Departed for Scorsese. Both are about identity, about making choices of who we are, but Shutter Island is firmly within the psychological horror genre while The Departed was a crime movie. There’s so much to chew on for the audience on these questions of who we choose to be based on what came before us.
On top of all that, this movie is gorgeous to simply look at. Up until this point, this is Scorsese’s best looking movie (Silence, I think, ends up even prettier). The deep blues and greens of the island, the storm, and the dark corridors of Ward C along with the bright red of the old barracks all provide this wonderfully rich color palette that is wonderfully pleasing to the eye. Lensed by Robert Richardson who had worked with Scorsese on Bringing Out the Dead and The Aviator (where color had been rather precisely designed to recreate color photography from different eras of Hollywood’s history), the movie just looks fantastic.
DiCaprio gives a very good performance as Teddy, steadily losing his mind as he goes deeper into the mysteries of the island. Ben Kinglsey balances right between professional, menacing, and caring in ways that make perfect sense within their contexts but add up to a man frustrated in his quest to help a sick man. Michelle Williams is wounded and also rather terrifying as Teddy’s wife, Dolores. There are very small parts from Elias Koteas as Andrew Laeddis, the man Teddy’s trying to find, and by Jackie Earle Haley as George Noyce, a patient who’d received a beating. I suppose the only weak link is Mark Ruffalo as Chuck. He’s fine as the clueless US Marshal in over his head early, but he feels kind of empty late in the film when his true nature appears.
Still, this movie is great, and it’s one of Scorsese’s best. Intelligently written by Laeta Kalogridis, beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson, and scored by a variety of classical music arranged by long-time Scorsese collaborator Robbie Richardson of The Band, Scorsese’s Shutter Island shows the advantages of a master of the craft given a large budget to fully tell a story that appeals to him.