My take on Shutter Island

My take on Shutter Island

My Significant Other (SO) and I played a little movie theatre roulette yesterday.  We had looked a bit at Fandango, but what we ended up doing was going to a specific movie theatre, and basically walking into the next movie (that looked like something we might like).  The movie starting ten minutes after we got to the box office?  Shutter Island.

I knew it was directed by Martin Scorsese.  That doesn’t immediately make me want to see a movie, but it is a plus.  I also knew it starred Leonardo DiCaprio…again, not a reason I choose to see a movie, but not a negative.


The movie is set in 1954.  DiCaprio is shown as a federal marshall, taking a boat to an island that is an asylum for the criminally insane.  The trip’s not easy for him…he has trouble with looking at a lot of water.  Also onboard is another Marshall, named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo).  Ruffalo is a plus for me, so it was nice to see him in the movie.  He sounded very much like Marlon Brando, circa 1953…but there might be a reason for that.

The script, by Laeto Kalogridis (perhaps best associated with the TV series Birds of Prey), and based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, is supposed to be twisty and turny…but it didn’t surprise me.  I’d say twenty minutes into it, I had it figured out.  I try not to do that…I love being surprised, but that didn’t really happen here. 

The movie had a lot of actors who can be good, but that wasn’t really the case here…and that can usually be laid at the feet of the director.  It’s hard for an actor to know the right level for a movie, because there are so many other things happening in it.  Directors can make a huge difference in performances, and when a whole cast is particularly good (or not so good), you can look at the director.

The great Max von Sydow acquits himself nicely, but the role doesn’t require much.  Ben Kingsley is the psychiatrist running the institution.  However, his career covers such a broad spectrum that his appearance in a movie really doesn’t tell you anything about the quality.  It (and he) may be great…or it might be Thunderbirds.

On the other hand, Jackie Earl Haley has an impressive scene.   While his part is important to the plot, his performance would make it interesting even if it wasn’t.

Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) has a somewhat thankless role.  She has a symbolic part to play in the beginning, and at times is overdirected.  My SO liked her performance, and I thought it was fine, but I don’t know how much it is going to stay with people.

TV watchers may be surprised by Ted Levine as the warden.  Most people probably know him best as Monk’s boss, Leland Stottlemeyer.  Others remember him as “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs.  He gets one intense scene here.  Since everybody’s scenes are intense (that’s really the tone of the entire movie), it doesn’t stand out as much as it might.

That’s one of the issues with the entire movie…the tone stays pretty much the same.  Everyone and everything is intense.  After awhile, you sort of get used to it.  Any story benefits by some variation.  If you don’t have ups and downs, it just doesn’t have a real impact.

Some of the visual imagery is eye-catching.  The movie could conceivably get Oscar nominations for cinematography and costumes.  My SO and I disagreed on the music.  I do pay attention to the score of a movie, and I thought this would be a good standalone.  My SO typically doesn’t notice the music, and felt that this soundtrack was too much in your face…or ears, at any rate.

The movie had a big opening, and is already at $75 million.  However, I’m predicting a pretty steep drop in the second week.  I don’t think the word of mouth is going to be that good, and that’s what gives a movie legs.  You can read reviews of it here at MRQE (which is a great site).   I’d say it tops out at maybe $160, $175 million…certainly, a respectable amount, but not a blockbuster.  I think its life on video will be good…people who don’t see it in the theatres will want to see a Scorcese movie, and those who liked it will want to re-examine the story from the comfort of the couch.

Recognize that face?  The Deputy Warden who first takes the Marshalls into the facility is John Carroll Lynch, who played Drew’s transvestite brother on The Drew Carey Show.


Okay, I’m seeing people on the web who found the movie confusing.  Here is my summary of it.  Do not read before you see the movie if you like being surprised.  I have not read the novel, by the way.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character had served in World War II, and seen difficult things.  When he came back from the war, he was suffering what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  His wife was having difficulty with how he was behaving.  She snapped and drowned their children…he blamed himself for that…he’d presumably seen signs.  He shot her, and was presumably found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the institution.  Doctor Crawley (Ben Kingsley) believes it is possible to cure him, while Doctor Naehring (Max von Sydow) is unconvinced, and thinks that a lobotomy would be the proper course of treatment.

Doctor Crawley arranges an elaborate roleplay, that would tie into “Teddy’s” delusions.  He thinks this might finally cure him.  Much of what we see if fantasized by “Teddy”, but it incorporates large amounts of the reality around him.  His primary doctor, Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) is part of the roleplay, pretending to be another Federal Marshall assigned to work with Teddy. 

Things do not go all that smoothly, with “Teddy” blowing up a car and injuring a guard and another prisoner. 

He appears to be cured, though…or at least, to remember the reality of what happened.  We see later that he speaks to Doctor Sheehan as if he was still in the fantasy, and the go ahead is given for the lobotomy (an orderly approaches with the appropriate equipment, and Dr. Naehring appears to be have a bit of a smug “I told you so” reaction (or at least, to be happy that the “proper course” of treatment is going to be followed.  “Teddy” makes an interesting comment…he asks if it would be better to live as a monster or die as a good man.  That lets us know that he is faking the relapse…he has chosen to have the lobotomy, rather than live with the trauma and risk hurting people again.  That’s just my take on it, though.  We see a number of things that support this hypothesis in the movie, however.  For me, those elements were often too obvious, which was a weakness in the movie as far as I was concerned.


Think I’m wrong, and that Shutter Island belongs up there with Psycho and The Sixth Sense?  Feel free to let me know!

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.  If you are reading this blog for free and would like to support it, just click here and then shop at Amazon.

3 Responses to “My take on Shutter Island”

  1. Pablo Chiste Says:


    I think the last line by Mark Ruffalo means it was a conspiracy and he’s not crazy. If so I liked the movie. Check out my review on

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Pablo!

      Wow, that’s a very different take from mine.



      I thought that what had happened was the cure had been successful, but there was doubt as to whether or not it was going to persist, with Max von Sydow’s character thinking it wouldn’t. “Teddy” pretends that it has not worked, because he has decided that it would be better to have the lobotomy than to relapse. That’s one of the things I thought was heavy-handed…we see the orderly carrying the lobotomy needle out in the open…not very likely with a sterile tool that is going to be used in “transorbital” surgery. My guess is that somebody thought the ending was too ambiguous otherwise.

      I’ll take a look at your review…thanks!

  2. The Week Ahead: July 12 – July 18 2010 « The Measured Circle Says:

    […] much with Memento, Insomnia, and Prestige.  Leonardo DiCaprio had a big hit earlier this year with Shutter Island, and Ellen Page lends hipster cred.  Some of Nolan’s Batman alumni are on hand, including […]

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