This movie review comes to us from Travis Greene, well known to those who pay attention to those who comment. Travis blogs as well, and we want to thank him for this review.
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The supporting cast is all quite
good as well, including the always-welcome Max von Sydow as a menacing German psychiatrist
(who keeps asking DiCaprio whether he believes in God), as well as Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle
Haley, who steal their single scenes. Kingsley, as usual, is great as the head
psychiatrist who seems to be hiding something.
The visuals around the island and
within the asylum’s walls are quite effective, but some of the flashback scenes
are a bit overwrought. I felt the same way about the score in some places; we
don’t need musical cues to tell us that tiptoeing through the dark cells of a
fortress overrun by lunatics is scary. But the sound design in other places was
excellent, as subtlety and silence can be much more unnerving than even the
most Hitchcockian violins.
Despite a potentially fatal flaw
that will be discussed below, Shutter
Island is overall a gripping and entertaining thriller with great
performances. Be advised that the film contains intense scenes of violence and
death, including that of children, as well as strong language. It is not a
movie to take your youth group to. But it is a movie that asks provocative
questions about reality that will stick with you for days.
SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this review will discuss specific
plot elements, including the ending. If you haven’t seen the film and would
like to see it unspoiled and form your own opinion (which I recommend), do not
Still there? Ok.
As I said, I was excited about the mysteries
of Shutter Island, and while the film was entertaining and I’m glad I saw it, I
don’t think it quite stuck the landing. You see, Shutter Island has a twist
ending. And like all “twist ending” movies, if it doesn’t pull off
the twist, it leaves you feeling more cheated than thrilled or amazed. When my
wife and I saw the previews for Shutter Island, I turned to her and said,
“I want to see that, but I hope it doesn’t just end with ‘turns out he was
crazy the whole time!’”
Well, that’s pretty much what
happens. DiCaprio is in fact a patient at the asylum, a former Marshal who is
racked with guilt for killing his wife, and creates the whole scenario of being
there to solve a crime because he can’t face reality. Ben Kingsley’s
psychiatrist character allows DiCaprio full run of the island to “solve
the mystery” in an attempt to force him to realize the truth: there is no
missing patient, and the demons he’s chasing turn out to just be him.
The problem is that a good twist
ending relies on you completely believing the setup before it pulls the
rug out from under you (see: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club). But the island is
such a twisted, reality-warping place seemingly full of conspiracies and
misdirection, and DiCaprio so compellingly plays a man sliding into madness,
that we don’t take anything at face value. We sense a twist coming, and hedge
our bets on who to believe, so when the big reveal comes, it’s the least
interesting scene in the movie. Watching characters standing around a room
explain why “it was all a dream” is a letdown after a tense two hours
of ominous lighthouses, treacherous cliff-climbing, and evil government cabals.
I should note that Shutter Island is
based on the Dennis Lehane book of the same name, which I have not read. It’s
quite possible that with the slow burn and character interiority possible in a
novel the payoff works better than it did for me in the film.
Despite my disappointment with the
film’s central twist, the last few moments almost
made it worth it. DiCaprio does realize and accept the truth of who he is and
what he’s done. Kingsley tells him he has had this breakthrough before, but
that if he regresses again they will have no choice but to lobotomize him. The
film ends with DiCaprio sitting on the steps of the asylum, talking to Ruffalo
(who turns out to actually be his psychiatrist). He has regressed again,
talking as if he is still a Marshal out to catch Kingsley, and the orderlies
are sent to take him away for his lobotomy. But as he happily walks away with
them, he asks Ruffalo, “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good
The questions in the last scene
about reality and fantasy are the most lingering of the film. If madness is
chosen as a defense against reality, is it truly madness? Is it better for some
people to live in fantasy than to go on suffering? DiCaprio will effectively
die, but he will do so (in his own mind) as a good man searching for justice,
rather than to go on living as a murderer. I am somewhat uncomfortably reminded
of the scene, which has always been a favorite of mine, in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair where Puddleglum
declares he’s going to go on living as a Narnian even if there isn’t any
Narnia. Like the similarly themed Pan’s
Labyrinth, Shutter Island seems
to suggest that for some, reality is so harsh that escape through fantasy is
the only way out. It’s like the dark underside of Pascal’s gambit.
But what of confession? DiCaprio’s
character does not seem to seriously consider the possibility of moving forward
in the truth, accepting his own past but also accepting the offered help of the
doctors who genuinely care about him. He lacks the imagination to see a third
option between living as a monster or dying as a good man: accepting the grace
(or in this film, therapy) offered him, and living as a redeemed man. His story
is doubly tragic; he has experienced and done terrible things, but when offered
a way forward, he chooses instead to move backward, effectively ending his life
rather than take up the difficult work of repentance.