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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Shutter Island (review)

Obvious Is as Obvious Does

Gee, for some really weird inexplicable reason, I cannot get the voice of the fantastic Mrs. Fox out of my head. When she discovers her husband, the felonious Mr. Fox, up to no good (this is in the recent Wes Anderson animated film, you see, not in Shutter Island) — up to no good that he should know to avoid — she scolds, “If what I think is happening here, is happening here, it better not be.”
Perhaps it’s because I can’t believe that everyone involved in Shutter Island — from novelist Dennis Lehane to screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis to director Martin Scorsese to Scorsese’s new onscreen alter ego, star Leonardo DiCaprio — thought they could get away with this. And while we’re all watching! Really, dudes and dudette? Have you not seen the 943 other thriller-in-an-asylum movies? You know, the 943 other films that go in precisely the same direction this one goes in?

Now, it’s true that this is Scorsese (The Departed, The Aviator), so it’s more stylish than any given made-for-SyFy flick, all misty mysteriousness and some very fine performances — particularly DiCaprio’s… But no: I refuse to believe that Scorsese, who made Boxcar Bertha in 1972 for Roger Corman, is unfamiliar with cheap pulpy cinematic thrills.

And so sitting through Shutter Island — which is about an hour longer than it should be, or would be if it admitted that it’s just one more cheesy psych-out — becomes a game of second guessing oneself, if one is like me and keeps waiting and hoping and praying that what it looks like is happening here ain’t actually happening here, cuz if it is… *headsmack*. Surely Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River) and Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Alexander) and hence Scorsese are merely waiting for the right moment to pounce and declare, “Aha! Fooled ja!”

That moment never comes. And in retrospect, one has to marvel that it does not, that it was never in Scorsese’s mind in the first place. Why else attack us, as the film opens, with potents and omens, as a ship slips out of the fog of outer Boston harbor approaching remote Shutter Island, the ominous, portentuous score booming with portenous omens, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio: Body of Lies, Blood Diamond) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo [Where the Wild Things Are, The Brothers Bloom], also very fine) arrive to investigate the escape of a dangerous prisoner-patient from the hospital for the criminally insane that inhabits the island? Honestly, I’ve never felt so assaulted by a movie soundtrack: boom BOOM BOOM it goes, like war drums as Teddy and Chuck have to give up their sidearms and the maximum security gates of the facility BANG shut behind them, which only makes any kind of reasonable sense, which can only be seen as something other than a madman director engaging in histrionics if the director is otherwise trying to imply — however sledgehammer-y — that There’s Something Going On, Isn’t There?

I’m trying to give Scorsese the benefit of the doubt when I say that perhaps he was attempting a double or even a triple fakeout: Because what it looks like is going on here actually is going on here, Scorsese tries to divert us for a while by figuratively getting all insulted: “C’mon! Would I really be so obvious? Something else must be going on here, dont’cha think?” Except it isn’t.

The character that everyone talks about but who is never seen? That’s gotta mean something, right? The thing that Teddy says is “important” — that’s another triple fakeout, right, meant to keep us tumbling around for a while? “Surely this is important,” we tell ourselves, “because otherwise why would Leo mention it? But that’s just the movie distracting us, right, by shining so bright a light on something that it should be keeping secret?” And then your head starts to hurt, kinda like the migraines that plague Teddy, who also has portentous, ominous nightmares about concentration camps (he was at the liberation of Dachau as an army grunt 10 years earlier).

For while, I tried to keep in mind that maxim: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Was I just being unreasonably paranoid in thinking the worst of Scorsese and Co.? Or was I just going crazy trying to prevent myself from going crazy?

But no: I was entirely justified in believing that was it looked like was going on was going on, and entirely justified in feeling a little cheated by it.


MPAA: rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Mathias

    Damn it! I was really, really hoping you’d recommend this.

    But if the ending pissed you off this much, why give it an orange light instead of an out and out red one?

  • MaryAnn

    Why a yellow light? Because if you don’t suspect what’s going on, I’m sure it’ll be a lot more enjoyable. And even if you do guess, it’s still worth a look-see for DiCaprio.

  • David

    Yeah, read the book and had pretty much the same feeling after I turned the final page. The first Lehane story in which I was disappointed.

  • Mark

    Okay, is it okay to say spoilerish things in the comments? Because I can guess at what you;re carefully not saying, but I’d like to just ask. And I personally had no interest in seeing the movie after I saw the trailer and thought — I think — what you thought.

  • isotonic

    This is exactly the reaction I had to this movie. The “reveal” was incredibly clumsy too. Kingsley (literally) spells out the solution step-by-step, only to be followed by a scene which shows the same sequence exactly. Redundant and anti-climactic.

    The “DUN DUN DUN!!!!” cello and violin soundtrack and rear-projection backgrounds were such a literal homage to Hitchcock and the genre that they just seemed silly in a modern movie.

    BTW be prepared for the Scorsese fanboys to come shouting that we were SUPPOSED to know you-know-what all along. That it was never MEANT to be a twist. Scorsese is just too clever for us.

  • MaryAnn

    BTW be prepared for the Scorsese fanboys to come shouting that we were SUPPOSED to know you-know-what all along. That it was never MEANT to be a twist. Scorsese is just too clever for us.

    Yeah, I’m expecting that momentarily. And it would be awesome if I saw the movie that way, too, because I really do love Scorsese something fierce — I certainly *wanted* to love this movie. But I didn’t feel that it worked that way.

    The “DUN DUN DUN!!!!” cello and violin soundtrack and rear-projection backgrounds were such a literal homage to Hitchcock and the genre that they just seemed silly in a modern movie.

    An homage is fine. A sledgehammer isn’t. :->

    Okay, is it okay to say spoilerish things in the comments?

    Yes, just put a really big ** SPOILER WARNING! ** at the top of your comment. And just so I don’t spoil it for you if what you guessed isn’t, in fact, correct, Mark, why don’t you ask me a question and I’ll answer it.

  • So yes, please, spoil it for us.

    I haven’t seen the film so this is just a question, not a spoiler, but spoiler warning anyway:

    **SPOILER**

    So Leo is that “missing” patient, right? I mean, this is so obvious that it simply can’t be the case, but from your review it seems like it probably is.

  • jh1725

    your review was spot on…..

  • Neil

    I read the book years ago, I felt as ripped off as you feel about the movie.

    I should never have given Lehane a second chance…not after the first book of his that I read(can’t remember the title, but it might have been Gone Baby Gone), where one of the main characters disses Canadian rock gods Rush. :/ – Really, Dennis Lehane? You had to air your musical non-preferences through a character in one of your books?

  • stryker1121

    Too bad…I was hoping Scorsese would dumb down Lehane’s natural inclination for melodrama…unfortunately the movie sounds just like how I remember book. Guess I’m gonna have to see for myself.

  • MaryAnn

    *** SPOILER ALERT!! ***

    So Leo is that “missing” patient, right? I mean, this is so obvious that it simply can’t be the case, but from your review it seems like it probably is.

    Yeah, Leo is the missing patient. He’s a patient at the asylum, and the whole shebang is a kind of role-play that his doctors think will cure him.

    I haven’t read any Lehane, but *Gone Baby Gone* (the movie) is absolutely frakkin’ brilliant. Though perhaps that is thanks to — as hard as this may be to accept — director Ben Affleck. I do have to say, as I did in my review o that film — that Affleck gets working-class Boston way better than Clint Eastwood did in *Mystic River* or Scorsese did in *The Departed.*

  • Boingo

    Good review (straight on). Bummer about
    Martin’s direction. I was hoping when he
    uses Leo, it’s not part of a formula (partly) to insure box office draw.
    Now, I’ll have to suspect a red flag.

  • Mathias

    I saw the ending coming and i still loved it.
    It’s still emotionally devestating and well acted.
    I think it works for the film and i didn’t feel cheated at all.

  • MichelleR

    So, people, top name people, keep on making Lehane books into movies, and yet you give credit to Affleck, rather than thinking it might be because of the source material? (And I love Affleck.)

    Dennis Lehane is simply a good writer. I get why people took issue with the ending, but this man blows me away with his talent.

    Why not, I dunno, read Gone Baby Gone?

  • Sara

    MaryAnn,

    I think this review is right on target and much of what you say is what I said to my friends on the way home. Reader/viewer doesn’t buy. Cheap tricks and your viewers (or readers) who are astute will feel manipulated and wish they’d spent their money on another movie. I’d rather have seen several of the very good films I’ve seen recently again than see this film for the first time.

    Too bad that DiCaprio’s acting was showcased in a film with such a weak narrative. And I agree his acting was superb. But good acting does not a good story make. Especially when the film in far too long– enough to give one a headache.

  • kathleen

    I read the book years ago and liked it- it’s not Lehane’s best Book- I didn’t see “the twist” coming in the book. I was vaguely looking forward to seeing the movie, which has just opened in Australia. What has surprised me is that it’s saturday night and my 17 year old daughter wants to go see it- even if it’s with me. (this is very unusual she is a live music goer hardly ever goes to the movies) So I think this is NOT a movie for us old Scorsese fans, maybe he is seeking new audiences and is that so bad??

  • Nico

    Just like to say that I loved the movie… :)

    I didn’t expect at all what was revealed in the end. Maybe because I saw the movie without any pre-thoughts about it, just enjoing its great atmosphere…

    Although it was a bit lenthy in the middle, I can 100% recommend seeing it… Although it is definitely not a movie for psycologically unstable or too young folks.

  • Sara

    *** SPOILER WARNING *** [added by maj. please remember to add if you’re going to spoil!]

    After thinking on the movie further, I think if was much more manipulative and cheap than I had initially thought. Especially for those who know anything about psychiatry/psychology during that time period and the strides made now. Not only was the audience manipulated but the character of DiCaprio was manipulated in the most horrific way. The movie was truly sadistic. The monsters were the doctors, the staff and DiCaprio had every right to know something was up—the part of him that had connection to reality was aware of this and the staff was actually (in their ignorance) breaking all of his reality testing strengths—or any he had and he had some.
    The doctors were portrayed as being kinder and gentler during the psychiatry/psychology at that time, but they were horrible.

    Why take a patient who has been to hell and back and then put him through some inane “experiment,” thinking that would make him bettter—and could possibly cause a breakthrough? It could do nothing but make him much worse and therefore give the doctors a rationale for doing a lobotomy on him (which never helped anyone really.) They might as well have done it at the beginning and saved us all the time and trouble. The film, I thought, was exceedingly sadistic and cruel.

    Any patient who has PTSD (as we’d know now) who is further traumatized is being treated in the highest unethical manner by those he was to trust (and there can be no treatment without some trust.)

    The movie could have been done is a very different way, had as much suspense, not tried to fool the audience in such a ridiculous way and just tell the story. DiCaprio’s acting would have been just as good for he was tormented. And why not? Psychiatry at that time was not even equipped to help him, only harm him. That’s the horror of the entire situation, and horror enough.

    There are people during that time period who fought the system (and who were sick) but had enough reality testing to know the problems in the system and appealed to family, friends and judges and got out of such places. Who who are now functioning members of society today.

    The true monsters were the healthcare personnel (at that time.)
    Yes, they were experimenting on him and some part of DiCaprio knew it and was fighting it as he should have—that was part of his sane self, yet it was presented as the opposite. “Run” was right.

    Horribly all around if you know the history of the period and know psychiatry now—again, DiCaprio was manipulated just as the audience was. The screenplay could have been written far differently and had a much greater impact, not been manipulative, and still showcased Di Caprio’s acting talent. I would have started the entire movie at the part when he comes into his home and his wife is sitting out on the swing, the children, drowned. Take it from there.

  • MaryAnn

    So, people, top name people, keep on making Lehane books into movies, and yet you give credit to Affleck, rather than thinking it might be because of the source material? (And I love Affleck.)

    Actually, I was responding to the commenter above who said he didn’t like Lehane.

    Why not, I dunno, read Gone Baby Gone?

    In between reading that comment and responding to it? I can’t read that fast.

  • Nathan F.

    *** SPOILER WARNING *** [added by maj. please remember to add if you’re going to spoil!] Why take a patient who has been to hell and back and then put him through some inane “experiment,” thinking that would make him bettter—and could possibly cause a breakthrough?

    How do you know they didn’t try other measures first? Cawley said that Laeddis had been there for two years already and that he had “broken through” before, but never fully accepted it. This experimental treatment was a last resort.

    It could do nothing but make him much worse and therefore give the doctors a rationale for doing a lobotomy on him (which never helped anyone really.) They might as well have done it at the beginning and saved us all the time and trouble.

    Except that it did work if you pay attention to Laeddis’ last line. They can’t control the decisions he makes afterward. I’m sure a lot of other sane people would’ve done the same thing in his situation.

  • Tom

    Haven’t seen the movie, but read the book. It really irritated me, for the same reasons you mentioned, but you did a beautiful job putting that irritation into words.

  • MichelleR

    I was merely suggesting that if you wondered if what made you enjoy Gone Baby Gone so much was the directing or the source material, you could settle it. I wasn’t expecting you to do so immediately. I wish I had that kind of power, but until I stumble across an ancient lamp…

    Well, have seen Shutter Island since my initial comment. Having read the book, I knew the ending. I loved it, because the knowledge allowed me to notice subtle character reactions — like when the patient was talking about Dr. Sheehan. While I also acknowledge a manipulation of the reader/viewer, I think both allow you to relate to and feel compassion for someone who has gone through something that most of us couldn’t withstand.

  • amy

    I just saw this tonight and must say I enjoyed it. I had skimmed this review when it was posted so I went in knowing the obvious thing was probably the way it would go but I still enjoyed the ride. They held the balance between 2 possibilities until the end. I was still not entirely sure which “obvious” way it would go until the final scenes. They set it up well enough that I couldn’t pin it down 100% until the end.

  • Mark

    (Coming back to this, far too late)

    ~ SPOILER! ~

    Yeah, Leo is the missing patient. He’s a patient at the asylum, and the whole shebang is a kind of role-play that his doctors think will cure him.

    That’s what I surmised from the trailer — or at least that Leo was a patient, or at least crazy. It seems like far too well-worn territory to be worth exploring if that’s intended as the “twist”. And, of course, “the protagonist is actually crazy” is really lazy story-telling unless it’s handled very carefully. Definitely worth knowing that I’m not missing anything here.

  • john

    How could he be a patient there for 2 years and not recognize anyone? they were part of his fantasy world too.

    How does getting to stop pretending to be Teddy cure him? He would still be violent.

    Spoiler? Only to someone who hasn’t seen: Indentity, The Others, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligar, High Tension…….

    The only twist would be if he didn’t go there-don’t waste 2 1/2 hours because he does.

  • john

    Woman in the cave made the most sense. Except there was no reason for her to be in the movie except to try and trick us. made no sense that she didn’t exist in the end.

  • pae

    I think the beauty of the entire movie is you don’t know how to feel and you don’t know which to believe. You are very much in the mind of Leo’s character. Paranoid and stuck between two different things that both could very much be true. I called it very early on. The fact that it didn’t show him anywhere else but the Ferry and the Island. He has experienced Trauma. The Doctor said he does experimental procedures. Patients seemed coached. Just met his partner. And there wasn’t much to the movie unless he was crazy. Frankly, practically from the beginning I just felt that’s the only way it could have been.

  • Boingo

    Just saw it. Opening blasting music-nuts.
    Beautifully crafted shots. Leo was at his best
    (‘cept gotta pretend he ain’t got a pretty boy
    face,playing the tough guy).All of the drama,
    and craftsmanship,and the ending reduces everything in record time to a soggy wart
    of a comic book plot. Not Scorcese’s best.

  • Boingo

    Oh yeah, ONE little kid keeps appearing?
    Only one?

    You can see from above, I’m trying not
    to “spoil” anything.

  • Michelle R.

    One kid kept appearing because she was the favorite, the one who evoked the most guilt and sense of loss — was even clearer in the book.

  • Boingo

    I see. Thaks for the clarification.
    I’ll remember some think differently.
    As a Dad of 2 daughters-neither one loved an ounce,less-
    it confused me.

  • Judy Best

    References above (to psychiatry and its practices of the time of the film’s setting) indicate ignorance about the capacity of Big Pharma’s psych-drugs, today, chemically to lobotomize subjects. Search online for “Peter Breggin, M.D.” if you want the rest of the story from a brave medical activist.

    There is as well a 21st century resurgence of electroshock (sanitized with modern dispensation of drugs to be less offensive to the outside viewer, and now with hypocrisy re-branded as “ECT” or electro-convulsive therapy,” but still brain-damaging to the psychiatric subjects).

    If online commentary about Shutter Island by obverse reasoning creates the false impression that media’s better-branded outward appearance of modern psychiatry in fact makes today’s psychiatry better for subjects than psychiatry 50 years ago or more, then we will have descended down another step in the basement of media lies.

    What a vast irony — given the WWII/Nazi camp liberation back story of DiCaprio’s character — because psychiatric cruelty was a favorite experimentation topic for Nazis (especially against women in the camps).

  • doa766

    I just saw this

    SPOILERS AHEAD

    and my feeling watching the movie was the same as yours but I was even thinking that it turned out that after the lighthouse scene Dicaprio would’ve somehow figured out that he’s really not crazy and they were really trying to making him look crazy to cover up the experiments it would’ve have been a cliche as well

    scorsese directed himself into a blind alley with this crap novel

  • Shutter Island was just as stunning as expected and more on by Leonardo DiCarpio’s performance..

  • I actually think it was a top movie. Leo done a good job. Watch it in surround sound and in the dark to get the full experience.

  • Tim

    Maybe I’m getting older, but I left the theatre feeling flat and depressed… and I absolutely love Martin Scorsese and gothic horror movies.

    Don’t get me wrong, I thought the style / soundtrack / performances were brilliant…. I just hate seeing a movie that makes me feel bad for no reason… what’s the point?????

    ….isn’t the world bad enough? In Australia a man just killed his three beautiful children… a horrid coincidence but it makes my point. Why act in a movie with such a dreadful premise if this is what happens in real life ??

    Tim

  • AsimovLives

    Dear MaryAnn Johanson

    You give a yellow light to this movie, and yet you gave a green for JJ Abrams’s STAR TREK? What’s wrong with this picture?

    Sincerely yours
    this portuguese guy

  • nnvee

    The emperor wears no clothes. The Martin Scorsese/Leonardo Dicaprio collaborations are all busts.

    I can’t believe Leonardo gets away with his scowl acting in all four of these movies. His face has no nuance, like it’s frozen into a scowl. I think he does this to overcome his poor casting choice:

    Gangs of New York-Not tough enough for the part.
    The Aviator-Not old enough for the part.
    The Departed-Not Boston enough for the part. This movie was awful.
    Shutter Island-Too ridiculous for all involved.

    When I saw the trailer for Shutter Island I thought what a great set-up for a mystery thriller. When I saw the movie I realized they ruined the chance to make a great mystery thriller.

    I like Dicaprio and Scorsese but not together.

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