SPOILER ALERT: This movie certainly lends itself to spoilers as it contains multiple major plot twists. I had already been made aware of the ending before I saw the film for the first time. Personally, as I will discuss in this review, I'm glad for that. However, I know most people would not share that viewpoint. So, if you'd rather not have the ending spoiled, please watch the film before reading this review.
If I had to choose a favorite director, I'm pretty sure I'd pick Martin Scorsese. There are so many fantastic directors, and on any given day I might give you another answer - maybe the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet or Francis Ford Coppola. See? I told you it's tough to pick.
But I'm pretty sure that my answer on most days would be Martin Scorsese. Set aside for the moment his incredible mastery of the craft of filmmaking. Personally, I resonate most with the fact that many of his films - in fact, almost all of them - contain themes of spiritual or religious significance.
I open my review of Shutter Island with that because I think this is a movie first and foremost about the downward spiral of human nature left to its own devices. Absent renewal and healing, the human heart is an abyss of moral decay. Thankfully, most people are not absent renewal and healing. Some find it through therapy or other clinical means. Others find it through family and close friends. I am of the belief that, while all those things do bring their own forms of renewal and healing, the deepest and only true way to heal the hurts we all carry is to accept and believe in the forgiveness of God and to enter into relationship with Him.
But there are those people who have not experienced that healing in their own life. Those hurts they carry often lead to hurting other people. It is these people - who have decayed into brutal violence against others - that are found on Shutter Island.
Shutter Island contains a federal mental instituation for the criminally insane. It is there that U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are headed as the movie begins. A patient named Rachel (who at various points in the film is played by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson) has somehow escaped, and they have come to the island to investigate.
As the movie continues, we learn about Teddy's tortured past. It includes a tragic fire that took the life of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), as well as his service in World War II where he was present for the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. We delve further and further into his character until we're presented with an unexpected revelation.
For me, the revelation was very much expected. Not because the writing is poor. If you have no prior knowledge of the film, I don't think the reveal is easy to spot beforehand. I, however, had heard about the big plot twist before I saw the film, but I'm glad that it happened that way. Why?
Because this movie is far more than a thriller with a big plot twist.
I'd imagine that this is a film that greatly rewards repeat viewings. My first viewing was basically like seeing it a second time, since I was already aware of the reveal. Seeing it that way helps you appreciate the early writing more. And, since you aren't focused on the plot twist as much when it happens, you can begin to consider the other plot points and where Scorsese is trying to take us.
I think Scorsese is interested in staring the animal nature of man in the face. Look at the decay of human nature and consider it to see if we learn something. It makes me think of a phrase I heard many times growing up in a Christian environment - "There but for the grace of God go I."
God's role in all of this is where I personally differ from the perspective portrayed in this film. Again, my favorite aspect of Scorsese's filmography is that he so often infuses his stories with spiritual themes. Silence, for instance, is one of my favorite films of all-time. Do I always agree with Scorsese's portrayals? No, but I think he should be rewarded for choosing to use his art to consider such important themes.
One scene in particular showcases what I'm referring to here. It is a conversation between Teddy and the Warden at Shutter Island. I love that Ted Levine was cast as the Warden, because it just adds to the spookiness to consider that the man who is supposed to be in control here is the same man who played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Anyways, their conversation drifts to the violence that is inside all of us.
Warden: Did you enjoy God's latest gift?
Teddy Daniels: What?
Warden: God's gift. Your violence.
Warden: When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me... a divine hand. God loves violence.
Teddy Daniels: I... I hadn't noticed.
Warden: Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it? It's in us. It's what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor.
Teddy Daniels: I thought God gave us moral order.
Warden: There's no moral order as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this: can my violence conquer yours?
Where I would differ from the Warden's point of view is to say that God did not give us violence. God is love, and the Bible is clear on this point throughout its pages. Yes, there are times where God commands the use of violence. But violence is clearly something that arose from the Fall and the beginnings of sin. Violence is an unfortunate fact of life, but I do not believe that it is a badge of honor that God seeks us to use to bring glory to Him. It is a symptom of sin and our fallen state. In fact, the Bible is clear that there will be no violence in Heaven.
Having said that, it is a symptom of our fallen state that within the decayed human condition resides the possibility of violence. So, the fact that I differ on a major point with the narrative that Scorsese builds here doesn't keep me from appreciating the fact that he has in fact built a profound narrative with a keen eye into the darker parts of our humanity.
The movie contains many camera flourishes and technical examples of Scorsese's greatness. He is, without a doubt, one of the great masters of the craft of filmmaking. There are many homages and similarities to the work of the great Alfred Hitchcock in this film, especially the movie Vertigo. Knowing that Scorsese is a student of film history, it did not surprise me to learn that he had the cast watch Vertigo while they were working on this film.
Shutter Island is suspenseful, thrilling and contains a great plot twist. But to focus on those aspects misses the true greatness of this film, in my opinion. Its greatness comes from a familiar place to fans of Scorsese's other great works. Though I wouldn't personally put this film up with the likes of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, like those films, Shutter Island is interested in looking at and considering human nature - more specifically its darker elements. Violence is present here just as it is in real life. Where does that violence come from and how do people who seem otherwise quite normal get to a point where they lash out in violent rage? There are animalistic tendencies inside every human. It is part of human nature. We see in the Bible how God offers help in renewing our minds and helping us in the fight against our animal flesh.
"So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." - Romans 8:12-14
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." - Romans 12:2
The movie ends on its most famous quote. I can think of no better way for me to end this review. Shutter Island is a film that had me thinking long after I was done watching it. It is a film that is well-made and well-acted, and I definitely want to watch it again. All those are signs of a truly great film, and I think here we have yet another from Martin Scorsese that is deserving of that acclaim.
Note on content: There is a great deal of violence in the film. Though there is not much violent action on screen, we see the aftermaths of many instances of violence. The bodies at Dachau are shown multiple times, including one particularly disturbing scene that does show torture fo women and children. A man is shown after committing suicide and the bullet hole in his face is very gory. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the film has high levels of gore and violence and that alone would make it unsuitable for younger audiences. There are some conversations about sex and one scene shows a group of naked men huddled together. But there is not much sexual content in the film. The movie does contain profanity, and it is a thriller - so there are some frightening and intense scenes.