I went in to Martin Scorsese’s latest offering thinking it would be a straightforward, thriller. I don’t think I could have been more wrong!
The film follows US Marshalls Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they investigate the case of a missing patient on Shutter Island, a mental hospital “for the criminally insane.” I will not say much more than that regarding the plot, simply because there are far too many twists (and I do not know if I completely “got it”). You’ll see what I mean if you see the film.
What I would like to discuss are the aesthetic qualities of the film:
The first aspect of Scorsese’s direction that I noted was the claustrophobic feeling he engraved in the film. Except for certain dream sequences, there is an overarching confining effect to the film. Actually, this tone is set at the beginning, on the boat, when Daniels gets seasick on the ride, because of there being water everywhere and nowhere to go. Once they arrive at Shutter Island, there are fences (with electrical barbed wire which Daniels recognizes from a past part of his life) all over the island to keep inmates – I mean patients – from escaping. Additionally, every building or ward on the island has the design of a labyrinth, like a maze in which anyone could be the lab rat. The tight shots throughout the film allow the viewer to feel what Daniels and Aule feel when navigating any area or building on the island.
Lighting effects stand out in a very dramatic way throughout the film. There is a storm on the island for the first half of the film. Bright white lightning flashes before our eyes repeatedly to almost give viewers a migraine like Daniels develops. Scorsese then uses these – what I would call – pure, bight flashed to smoothly transition between dream, hallucination, and possibly, reality. In many cases, the flashed transition to other neon, bright colors, but these almost always give way to harsher color gradients as the scenes play out.
The music throughout the film could not have been a better fit. In a chilling scene where Daniels meets one of the doctors on the island at Dr. Crawley’s (Ben Kingsley) home, Mahler’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor (or here) is playing. This haunting music leads effortlessly into a flashback sequence to Daniels’ army days in liberating Nazi death camps. I feel that using Wagner or Beethoven here would not have relayed the same sentiment as this Mahler piece does (besides the fact that using either of the latter composers would have been terribly clichéd). Aside from this piece, Scorsese uses classical music from the past century such as John Adams, John Cage, Max Richter, and Ingram Marshall. Using these modern classicists was an excellent decision to give the film a more genuine feel.
As a final note, I found a conversation involving Daniels and the warden to be particularly interesting and thought-provoking. In this dialogue, the warden asserts that “God loves violence.” He then begins to compare the forces of violent storm they just witnessed to the “most pure form of social order [in God’s eyes].” I think that this conversation alone gives rise to my assessment that Shutter Island is not just a “scary movie” or thriller, but rather, it is something much more. It has Orwellian and Kafka-esque motifs throughout. If you read this before seeing the film, make sure to look for these references.
I have loved the Scorsese/DiCaprio dynamic since The Aviator and it clearly continues to impress. I think that had the film been released in October of last year, it could have been in this year’s Oscar race.