Making the Grades
Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese utilizes a selection of classic plot devices to keep viewers captivated and literally in the dark during their visit on Shutter Island. Yet, even with the clichéd "dark and stormy night" that intensifies and surrounds the characters in this film, Scorsese manages to pull a twist out of his directorial hat that will leave you thinking about this movie long afterward.
Set in 1954, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) are sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of a female patient from the unique facility that attempts to rehabilitate the criminally insane. This hybrid combination of mental institution and jail is under the care of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) who is adamant that the typical therapies of the day—radical brain surgery and emerging pharmacology—are ineffective in helping an individual recover and have a hope of leading a normal, productive life. Instead the doctor insists in treating patients as human beings and employing psychoanalysis techniques to bring them to an understanding of the root causes of their mental illness.
This softened approach to people who are considered some of the most dangerous in the county doesn’t sit well with Teddy. Obviously frustrated with Dr. Cawley’s methods, the federal marshal begins his investigation. Interviewing staff members and prisoners (or "patients" according to Dr. Cawley), Teddy becomes convinced there is much more happening within the foreboding buildings than what is readily apparent. Dealing with his own mental issues after liberating Nazi Holocaust camps and grieving the death of his wife in a tragic fire, the investigator finds it increasingly difficult to keep an objective perspective on what little facts he can uncover.
Scorsese deftly uses time and place to reach his goal. The movie’s relatively long running time (138 minutes) allows for extensive character development. This focus is enhanced by the employment of confinement and seclusion. There is no way on or off the island, and the storm knocks out all communications, effectively closing many loopholes and "why didn’t they…" questions.
The mature themes examined are unlikely to be of much interest to young audiences, and that is probably a good thing for concerned parents, because the film includes some disturbing portrayals. Flashbacks sequences from a Nazi extermination camp show piles of corpses. Another repeated scenes depicts a Nazi commander lying in a pool of blood with a large, explicitly detailed gunshot injury on the side of his face. Other images feature a blood-covered woman who has killed her children and the corpses of drowned toddlers. Also expect to hear at least eighteen sexual expletives, a couple of crude sexual terms, and various profanities.
As is often the case, the inclusion of much of this potentially problematic content does little to contribute to this movie’s otherwise ingenious construction. Shutter Island will be most appealing to adults who are willing to overlook these flaws, and are fans of this director and the thriller genre.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Shutter Island.
Why do you think this movie is set in the early 1950s? How would modern technology, like cell phones, change the way this script would be written?
How does confinement (in this case, an island) work to intensify the situation? Can you think of other movies or stories that also use this as a tool?