I must admit, I’ve always thought that it must be somewhat demoralising to film directors to make a mystery thriller. You spend all this effort honing a cinematic experience that, for the most part, can really only work once. After your audience has seen it, they know the solution to the riddle, how everything pans out and there’s not necessarily a lot of reason to see it again.

So the strength of these types of films generally hangs on a) the subject matter, b) how well you can baffle the audience and c) and  how well they’re executed. Shutter Island delivers in varying levels on these three counts. But that might depend on who you are as well.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a great idea for a story. A US Marshall, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) heads out to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts, home of an aslyum for the most violent of the criminally insane. Teddy is a bit traumatised himself, his wife having perished in a fire in their apartment, but really his trauma is about to begin.

Aided by his new Marshall sidekick (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy gets his briefing from the Director of the asylum (Ben Kingsley): an inmate has disappeared – a woman who is in denial that she drowned her three children. Teddy and sidekick set off to investigate, and the mystery begins.

From here, how the story goes depends on how baffled you are. From the moment I saw the trailer, I had a theory about how this kind of movie would turn out (a theory which I will not share…) and it was obvious fairly quickly that this was the direction the movie was heading down. I was wrong about a couple of details, but it was more an ending that ticked boxes for me, rather than left me reeling with surprise when the end credits rolled (unlike, say, The Usual Suspects, where I was). However, that’s just me. I know other people who had no idea how it was all going to pan out and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. So I won’t mention any more except to say that the less you think about it as you watch it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Which brings us to the execution. If you’ve ever seen a film by Martin Scorsese, you’ll know that the guy is one of our greatest filmic storytellers alive today. His subject matter is often violent and extreme, but always visually engaging. His editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who I assume works almost exclusively for Scorsese) has developed a rapid-fire editing style over the years that makes his films instantly recognisable.

However, I’m not sure whether it’s Thelma or Martin, but somebody seems to be losing their touch in the editing room. Normally, his films move at an exhausting pace, with very little fat. But this film could easily have trimmed 20 minutes of it’s 140 minutes with no trouble at all. I understand that it’s the modern thing to have a dream sequence followed by a dream sequence. (It certainly made me jump in The Wolfman.) But Wolfman pulled off two dream sequences in about 45 seconds. Shutter Island has three back to back and it feels like they go for 10 minutes.

But despite all this, the film gradually manages to work itself up to a crescendo, without getting irritating. While it does have a few jump moments, often it shocks the audience by turning the sound all the way down. (Watch the scene near the beginning where the old woman says “Shhh” – it’s seriously creepy.) The separate strands of the woman who drowned her children, the Dachau concentration camp and the death of Teddy’s wife, all blend to provide a genuinely disturbing finale that, despite its predictability, is still rattling around in my head the next day.

Finally, a word must be said about the music. Rather than bring in a film composer, Robbie Robertson (of The Band fame, for those who remember The Last Waltz) is the Music Supervisor, and he has assembled an extensive collection of 20th/21st century classical music to use in the film. So there’s everything from Penderecki to Adams to Eno on display here and it works amazingly. (Especially the strident piece of Penderecki as Teddy arrives on the island and is driven to the asylum gates.) I once heard someone say that modern classical music was like music from a slasher film that goes on for 20 minutes. And that is kind of backed up by this film score, which will get under your skin faster than anything else in the film.

For those who like this sort of thing and have no idea where it’s going – you’re going to love this film. For the rest of you, there’s a lot to appreciate about the filmmaking, even if it is a tad slow. Just pretend you’re watching a Hitchcock instead…

4 out of 5.

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3 thoughts on “Film Review: Shutter Island

  1. Oddly enough, while I didn’t really have any sense of mystery while I was watching it, it’s such a strong atmosphere piece (the location, the music, etc), I would actually recommend watching it on a big screen if at all possible, just because the more you immerse yourself in the experience, the stronger it will work on you.

    (I find it’s never quite the same on TV, where you can turn down the loud moments and leave lights on and distract yourself, etc. etc.) And, look, just don’t try to solve the thing while you watch it, let the whole thing unfold, and it will still resonate in your head a week later. I think it’s a notch above the usual thriller.

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