Shutter Island: Martin Scorsese’s blend of pulp and prestige

US actor Leonardo DiCaprio arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
US actor Leonardo DiCaprio arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images) /

February marked the 10th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a foray into pulp and psychology that’s still effective today.

Shutter Island turned 10 back in February. Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel, it marked the first time since 1991’s Cape Fear that Martin Scorsese returned to an overtly pulp landscape. Considering the filmmaker’s monumental reputation among critics and fans alike, the trailers made it look like something of a lark.

But it’s not like Dennis Lehane is some seedy pulp scribe. His books are extremely popular, and have served as the basis for such award-winning cinematic fare as Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. He knows his way around the mechanics of storytelling, and how to place endearing characters within compelling circumstances.

A 1950s period piece with mood to spare, Shutter Island is a mystery that uses the titular isolated locale as a backdrop. At a time when psychiatry was still considered pseudo-science by a more pragmatic medical establishment, it uses this tension to complement the conflicts of the central plot.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (a pre-Marvel Mark Ruffalo) are federal marshals called to the island to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). After being greeted by a cadre of grim-faced, rifle-toting guards, they meet up with Drs. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow). The former is an advocate for new and experimental forms of psychiatry; the latter, a stern believer in the traditional establishment.

The pacing is a callback to the more patient celluloid efforts of yesteryear: Shutter Island takes its time building mystery and character. Scorsese uses the aesthetic and narrative skills he honed on epic works like Goodfellas to create atmosphere and suspense. As with the best films that spring twists on the viewer, he ensures that we’re never ahead of the characters. If anything, his methods of misdirection (dream sequences; unreliable narrators) are just as important as the assured moments where there is no doubt of what we’re seeing.

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Similarly, the island is presented as its own contained world. From the moment Daniels and Aule spot the isle, to their ride to the main campus, and the various rooms and buildings they’ll explore before the credits roll, Scorsese understands the aesthetic value of presenting the place as more than just a B-movie loony bin. Too many films approach mental illness from a exploitative, shock-value perspective, and while Shutter Island has its moments (the creepy woman in the garden, for instance), the approach to its core characters stems from a place of empathy and understanding.

It’s a dark film, literally and figuratively. But also not without humanity, which is another thing that separates Scorsese’s approach from some clueless horror opportunist. Perhaps most shocking in the book and the movie is how the third act doesn’t lead to the outcome the story’s been building toward. When a group of people encircle a character by their bedside, listening to the person’s confession, it shows the film’s true colors as a contemplative mood piece.

In an effort to cement the legitimacy of Shutter Island, the ensemble is populated with brilliant actors. The film is anchored by DiCaprio and Ruffalo, but when their characters begin to lose touch with their respective roles is when Scorsese assimilates them further into the dank, dripping corridors of the asylum.

Kingsley and von Sydow are fantastic. As is John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac), Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), and Elias Koteas (Cronenberg’s Crash). Each actor is given at least a few minutes of screen time, but that’s more than enough to leave an indelible impression.

It’s also interesting how Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis approach the cliches that spring up within the plot: when downed power lines disconnect the island from the mainland, it’s relegated to a several-second scene. The initial investigation into Rachel’s disappearance is done through a series of swift edits accompanied by voice-over from Kingsley. Through this perfunctory approach, Scorsese hints that these details are not the crux of the film. The clever part is that we don’t realize this until the credits roll.

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The question of whether or not Teddy is of sound mind surfaces early on, and the ghostly specter of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) appears periodically in his dreams. The sequence where Teddy holds an ashen Dolores as their apartment burns is poetic in its tragedy – the vision of a man literally holding on to someone who’s long departed this world.

Scorsese captures dreams as they are – not narrative tapestries that make complete and utter sense, but jagged and disjointed visions that resemble a movie with scenes missing. The earliest (and best) instance of this is when Teddy envisions himself implicated in Rachel’s crimes (she drowned her children). There’s a macabre moment where the blood-stained kids lie at their feet, but there’s something off about the depiction, perhaps because Scorsese eschews graphic, real-world detail for something closer to the gore gags in a Hammer film.

As a result, the implication of the horrors Rachel has inflicted, and the death her children have suffered, becomes something even more disturbing. Scorsese is not devaluing the act or loss of life involved – he’s worming it into the collective consciousness of the film itself.

And that’s part of what makes Shutter Island such a memorable work. While Scorsese has made crowd-pleasers and critical darlings, those same audiences and critics are thrown for a loop when he crafts something that’s – I’ll say it once more – more of a lark. This being the type of film it is, there’s narrative twists and a closing revelation, but the effort leading up to it is a succession of bold brush-strokes that create a lesser-sung masterpiece.


You can watch Shutter Island on VUDU, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu. 

What do you think of Scorsese’s Shutter Island? Let us know in the comments.