A Review of Shutter Island (2010)

There is a certain appeal about a movie with a story filled with dark thematic elements and a production design that pushes the dark end of a visual scheme. The look and feel of all the elements that are present in a film noir movie is what draws me into watching it with interest. These movies are filmed in such a way that the dark shadows become a character of their own. The dark areas of the screen tend to add a bit of personal depth to the actual characters who reside within the story of the movie. The people have something to hide from the other characters, but they are not upfront about with holding any information.

It would be an intentional device to intertwine the visual style of film noir with that of the personal dark secrets held by the characters within the story. However, the particular method of film noir storytelling is clearly set apart from the visual cousin of the horror film, which also utilizes dark shadows and murderous characters to its advantage. The directive of storytelling between the two styles is as different as night and day. Film noir movies tend to break down the human condition into an allegory, parable, or investigative piece about human behavior.

If a horror film attempts to explain the human condition and behavioral actions of a serial killer, then it would add up to nothing more than a delusion of grandeur. The tools of cinematic production are the same, but the directive of storytelling is different. I am drawn to the directive of the film noir, which holds the dark elements of production design and a story that provokes the audience to contemplate various aspects of human behavior. To describe as plainly as possible, I enjoy a movie that pushes me to use my brain once in awhile instead of purely resting upon the mind-numbing and often boring appeal of scaring the crap out of me for two hours.

The golden era of film noir has been highly treasured during the 1940s, but there is still a strong presence of the genre appearing in contemporary films, including Martin Scorsese’s thriller Shutter Island (2010). The screenplay has been adapted from the bestselling book written by Dennis Lehane who has gained popularity in Hollywood with the cinematic adaptations of his books including Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River.

Perusing through the inventory of cinematic elements appearing in Shutter Island there are several pieces that are classic icons of the traditional film noir story. There is a detective, a criminal villain, questionable ethics from an authoritative figure, and the highly recognizable use of high contrast cinematography. The elements of storytelling through means of behavioral study, which I have already described, are fervently apparent in this film.

The prominent setting for the vast majority of the film is placed within the premises of an institution for the criminally insane. With an enclosed location such as a prison would be a twofold venture that presents the opportunity to serve up an army of criminals who all could be the villain of the story, but they are also monitored by an authoritarian system, who holds an indication of questionable ethics of professionalism. Marking the prison as a holding pen for mentally unstable people is nothing short of an easy target for the observation of human behavior, since every character will bring out their internal animal instincts for survival without any relevance of consideration for morals and ethics to slow them down.

Although the film, and the book as well, makes an honest effort at presenting the story with a twist ending, it was not so cleverly disguised in the final cut of the film. Various elements that would suggest the expectations held by the audience are false pretenses to be destroyed in the third act of the film were sneaking into the story as early as the beginning of the second act.

The lead character, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshal hailing from Boston who is assigned to a case that sends him to a remote insane asylum located on an island off the coastline of Massachusetts. He is joined by a fellow Marshal hailing from Seattle, Washington. An early warning sign has flagged Mr. Daniels’ inability to remember simple details about his new found partner such as the city and state from which he lives and works. Regardless if he is able to remember or not the minor details about his partner the audience is not expecting to be concerned over such triviality.

There is one minor detail about the film, which was distracting me. Although it is nothing more than a tiny speck within the grand scheme of the production, I noticed that it was preventing me from being completely immersed in the story.

When there is a large collection of cameo appearances within a film, especially by a group of recognizable faces, I begin to play a game of “Where’s Waldo” by pointing out as many recognizable cameo appearances as possible. This would serve more as a distraction to me than it would be as a positive contribution for the film to draw in a group of high quality talent to produce a valuable production. Many of the cameos are portrayed by character actors, which means I was spending a bit of time wondering which movies I have seen them in before, but unable to completely remember their names.

One particular heavyweight of a distraction in the movie was Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine who portrays the prison warden. His screen time is relatively brief, but he packs quite a memorable impression on the audience with his raspy voice that prattles on the topic of criminally violent behavior. If you have ever watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in conjunction with this film you would immediately see the interesting connection between his roles for each film.

Although it is commonly perceived at face value to be a horror film, it is clear to me that Shutter Island would be more intriguing to be watched as film noir more than any other style of cinematic storytelling. I walked away from the movie with a positive experience that I actually enjoyed watching it.

After speaking with an acquaintance I marked the observation that the film is clearly not for everyone’s personal enjoyment. Although it is directed by renowned film director Martin Scorsese, there are some stories that are produced by talented people who are unable to please everyone. After all, it would be worthwhile for me to admit here that I feel like one of the very few people who shrugged off The Departed (2006) as a dull film overburdened by excessive violence.