Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 19 February 2010
- Written by Jacqueline Monahan
Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
A visit to Ashcliff, an asylum for the criminally insane on a remote, windswept island off the coast of Boston is not exactly a lighthearted premise for a film, and Shutter Island is anything but.
The year is 1954 and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and newly assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive to investigate the circumstances of a patient’s disappearance. Rachel (Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson) has murdered her three children and has delusions of living in the Berkshires, family intact; now it seems she’s escaped.
Daniels is having a rough time with his latest assignment. Suffering from sea sickness and migraines, he’s also prone to nightmares about his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) as well as flashbacks to his military service in WWII and the horrors he encountered while liberating the Dachau concentration camp. Visiting Ashcliff only intensifies these experiences with a horrifying vividness.
The dead haunt Daniels with staring, lifeless eyes and recriminations. His wife appears to him during sleeping and waking states to whisper warnings. Fire, ashes, smoke and water all figure prominently in past and present events. Daniels is determined to blow the lid off of the institution’s activities. Am I being vague? It’s for a good reason.
Shutter Island’s Ashcliff asylum is a fortress full of armed guards, brick buildings (one of them is a former Civil War fort) green lawns and shackled patients with killer instincts – literally. Medical Director Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), along with Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), the Warden (Ted Levine) and Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch) run a tightly controlled institution, full of chains and guns and drugs – and, oh yes, severely mentally damaged human beings. An uncooperative brain, it seems, is a prison in itself. Delusions spill in and out of the rooms of Ashcliff like the omnipresent rain.
Orderlies keep things in order, as do psychotropic drugs or, in the worst of the incorrigible cases, the barbaric transorbital lobotomy. That’s where they enter a recalcitrant brain with an ice pick through the eye and its lid, destroying all those evil nerve receptors and the bad thoughts that got the patient into trouble in the first place. The real horror story here is that this procedure was actually practiced in past decades
Daniels and Aule begin the investigation together but end it on very different terms. Between that time we are privy to a parade of revelations, caves full of rats, an ominous lighthouse, conflicting narratives and dead children. Like I said, no party hats here, just the grim realization of what human beings are capable of when the dark side of the mind takes over.
Of course, things are not what they seem. Shutter Island is a one big, hard rock of madness surrounded by water. Traffic seems to flow only one way. Don’t eat the food or even smoke the cigarettes. Act up and you’ll be made to shut up. When they tell you to cut it out, they do it for you (see transorbital lobotomy, above).
Parallels are drawn to the McCarthy Era (a premium on correct thought, flushing out those who are different and ostracizing them) and German concentration camps of the recent past (containing the undesirable, taking deadly liberties with human lives).
Take the “er” out of Shutter and substitute –in, -out, or –up. It would still make sense in that world where almost nothing else does.
Leonardo DiCaprio brings an intensity to the role that is a fitting match for his character’s alternating bewilderment and resolve.
Ben Kingsley is unsettling as the silky, seemingly sinister doctor full of confidence in his mission while at odds with nearly everyone else.
Mark Ruffalo shows a different side of himself despite playing yet another law enforcement official; although his resume is full of such roles he proves he’s capable of much more complex characterizations.
Michelle Williams is almost too distractingly youthful to play a mother of three, but is effective as a dubiously seductive dream image.
Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson play the same character with wildly differing styles, both of them competing for veracity and compelling.
Max Von Sydow, always a formidable presence inhabits his scenes in a menacing, somnambulant way.
Ted Levine’s faux-jovial scene with DiCaprio on the subject of violence is quietly unnerving.
Director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) injects his brand of stylized violence and suspense into the tale, forcing the camera not to flinch, even if the viewer does. Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, he creates an atmosphere of grim, forbidden truths, the kind that don’t always set you free.
It is said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Scorsese shows us that sometimes, more than we’d like to imagine, a mind is just a terrible thing