Premise: A U.S. Marshall must go to a maximum security psychiatric ward located on an island to find a missing patient.
About: They’re baaaaaaaaaaaack. Moviemaking BFFs Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are back at it again with this surprisingly conventional thriller. In addition to DiCaprio, the film also stars one of my favorite actors, Mark Ruffalo, as well as heavyweight Ben Kingsley and the delightfully delicate Michelle Williams. Writer Kalogridis has emerged as one of the top writers in Hollywood, having worked on a ton of big films such as X-Men, Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman, and two films yet to be made by James Cameron. Kalogridis sold her first spec to Warner Brothers (about Joan of Arc) all the way back when she was at UCLA film school. But for those of you who think it’s easy street after selling your first spec, Laeta disappeared off the map for many years and had to pay her dues before she was finally able to get back in the game.
Writer: Laeta Kalogridis (adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane)
It was recently reported that Shutter Island was being pushed back to February. This was a shocking development for a few reasons. First, this film (or the film’s pieces at least) was on a lot of peoples’ Oscar radar. Second, outside of summer, December is the most profitable time to release a movie, especially if it’s good. And third, February is probably the least profitable month to release a film. To give you some perspective, last February’s big release was The Jonas Brothers in 3-D (by the way, these rumors floating around that I was there opening day are greatly exaggerated). Could the film actually be bad?
Well here’s the confusing part. Even if the film was terrible, it’s still extremely marketable. You have Scorsese. You have Leo. And you have a spooky intriguing concept. So why would you put this in the worst box office month of the year? The studio’s saying that they don’t have the money to promote it properly but everybody knows that’s bullshit. They have the money. Could it be that the suits are afraid the audience will go in with certain “award-worthy” expectations? And that this isn’t that type of film? Do they want to market it more traditionally? All of these questions peaked my curiosity, so I decided to take a look at the script. You can throw all the actors and production value you want at a flick. But you can’t protect a bad screenplay. It was time to find out what these suits were so afraid of.
It’s 1954 when we meet Teddy Daniels. Teddy is a born fighter. The guy’s got danger in his eyes. He’s a U.S. Marshall. Except we’re catching him in his only vulnerable moment, on a boat, puking. The foggy wavy ride has set his stomach crawling faster than a five course Indian brunch. Teddy’s partner is CHUCK, always ready with a joke. This is the first time the two have worked together and it’s clear from the way Chuck treats Teddy, that Teddy’s something of a legend in the business. When you need something solved, Teddy solves it.
The two are being ferried over to Shutter Island, an island built specifically for the most insane of the insane. But Shutter Island is unique in that it’s a maximum security island. In case you didn’t know, there’s no other “maximum security” insane asylum in the U.S. The people on this island are that dangerous. Or at least that’s what we’re told.
After a brief look at the grounds, they meet Dr. Cawley, who informs them that a patient named Rachel Solando has gone missing. Rachel is so fucking crazy that she drowned her three children in the ocean, then dried them off and set them up in their chairs for dinner. Yeah, and you thought your ex-girlfriend was crazy. Anyway, Rachel has constructed a fictitious reality here at Shutter Island that allows her to believe she never came here in the first place. She thinks she’s still back at home, and the orderlies and doctors are post workers and milkmen. What she did to her children was so traumatic, the only way for her to go on was to create a world where it never happened.
Hmmm, I think I know where this is going.
So Teddy and Chuck start searching around, only to find that the patients’ and orderlies’ answers don’t exactly add up. Rachel somehow got out of her max-security cell and then snuck past not one or two, but three sets of guards without being seen. Dr. Cawley and his cohorts are clearly hiding something. And that’s when things really go off the lid. Turns out we don’t know Teddy as well as we thought we did. Teddy’s been doing research on Shutter Island for years now. It so happens that his wife was murdered in an arson fire at their old apartment building by the maintenance man, a lowlife named Laeddis. Laeddis was later sent here. Which means that finally, Teddy has a chance to confront him.
Chuck is skeptical. How did Teddy know that at some point in time he’d be asked to come to Shutter Island? It’s a question that doesn’t bother Teddy, but it’s the beginning of a series of clues that lead us to believe Teddy might not be all there. Or is it we’re only supposed to think that? Is Teddy insane? Or is he being set up? More investigating follows, which leads to more creepy patients, which leads to the same message being offered to Teddy over and over again: “Get off this island while you still can.”
Wow, looks like Teddy’s gotten himself into a TITANIC mess.
The cool thing about Shutter Island is you’re sitting there thinking, “Is Teddy crazy? Is he one of the inmates, imagining all this?” Normally you’d think yes and chalk it up to a generic thriller. But because this is Scorsese, who’s seen just about every iteration of every story ever told, you know he’s not going to make it that simple. You know there’s gotta be another answer. But then again, maybe Scorsese knows you know this, which is why he WILL do exactly what you expect. Or....don't expect. Or wait a minute. What's the question again? Basically, Scorsese and Kalogridis are fucking with our heads the same way the doctors and orderlies are fucking with Teddy’s.
In the end, I don’t think Shutter Island gives us anything new, but the way the story is told still feels original. One of the cool things about the screenplay is that it goes much deeper than “is or isn’t Teddy crazy?” 1954 was a huge transition time in the psychotherapy field. Back in those days, they’d use shock treatment and physical violence to treat the insane. But a new approach was gaining ground in the industry – that of medicated treatment. The government is dreaming of a future where people can be medicated right out of their pain and symptoms. “We’re on the verge of medicating the human experience right out of the human experience,” Dr. Cawley’s cohort says. One of the subplots is that Shutter Island is a secret testing ground for this new type of treatment. Teddy, who was there liberating one of the concentration camps back in World War 2, fears that Shutter Island is a concentration camp in itself. The experience affected him so much, he’ll do anything to make sure something like it never happens again. All this plays out very eerily as you don’t have to look far to realize that 50 years later, this medicated form of existence has become a staple of our society. My guess is that this extra element is what attracted Leo and Scorsese. There’s definitely some depth here.
I really dug Shutter Island. It kept me guessing all the way through and it had more twists and turns than I knew what to do with. This should be a fun flick. And my guess is it will move again to a more audience friendly month.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If it’s possible, try and contain your thriller. By not giving your protagonist anywhere to go, you raise the stakes and the tension of your story. In Shutter Island, we knew Teddy had nowhere to run, and that extra “contained” element made everything scarier. The only thing worse than being caught in a terrifying situation, is being caught in a terrifying situation that you can’t run away from.