I had to wait a while to write this review so that I could process this film and found that even after a few days, I still could not review it properly. So I went to see it a second time, and even though my feelings and thoughts about it are more concrete... starting this entry is still very hard! There are just so many things to say, so where to start?
I'll start by saying it was amazing. By far my favorite Dicaprio/Scorsese collaboration so far. Not only was this movie suspenseful and frightening, it was also heartbreaking and provoking. I think many people went into this movie expecting to be scared, but beyond the moments that make the audience jump, there are moments that truly affect and disturb the viewer emotionally. It's not about horrifying images; it's about actual haunting visuals that speak deeper than just blood and guts. Leonardo Dicaprio's portrayal of Teddy was one of the best (if not the best) performances of his career. In every single way, Dicaprio convinced me of what was going on in each scene, even when it was surreal dream sequences.
With that being said, I'll head into my spoiler-loaded break down of the film. Look away if you haven't seen it yet!
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
Going into this movie I was pretty convinced that I had guessed the basic plot from the previews I had seen. Dicaprio was going to the island to figure out this 'disappearance,' the clue was that there was more than likely an extra patient on the island, Leo starts seeing things, and therefore my guess was that he'd find out at the end of the movie that HE, in fact, was the 67th patient. (dun dun dun) However, even though I had pretty much decided I was correct about this, I wasn't going to let that ruin my experience of the 4th Dicaprio/Scorsese collaboration I was sure to adore. I marched into the theater convinced that they would both help me to forget that I knew the plot and lead me somewhere I hadn't thought of before.
They did just that, and much, much more. Not only did the plot surprise me in almost every way possible, Scorsese's story-telling and Leo's portrayal CONVINCED me completely that my guess about the plot was WRONG, even up to the very point where it was revealed that my guess was actually RIGHT. Even as Dr. Cawley (Ben Kinglsey) told Teddy point blank that he was a patient on this island, just as I had predicted, I leaned over to my husband, Justin, and whispered, "I don't trust him [Cawley]," and Justin nodded saying, "Me neither." The movie was done so well that at the end, not only did Kingsley have to convince Leo of something he was already told, but he had to convince me of something I had already predicted. Now that's great story-telling and acting. So amazing, that it actually convinced me I was wrong to the point where I was just as skeptical and defensive as Teddy Daniels in that moment of realization.
Throughout the movie, I forgot my preconceptions because there were so many surprising pieces of the plot. And beyond that, there were so many surreal moments that had obvious symbolism in them, even if I didn't fully understand it all until the end. As frightening as some of the images were, I couldn't help but think that the scenes were also very beautiful. Especially the first dream sequence.
Teddy walks into his old apartment and sees his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). When she turns, her back looks like it has been charred with embers and parts of it are falling into ash. Then there is ash floating all throughout the room, and as Teddy holds Dolores she becomes covered in water. Then she begins to bleed from the tummy, and then she slowly disappears. When Teddy awakes from this, it's easy to assumed the water was because he was sleeping under a leak in the ceiling as it rained, and that the ash was the fact that she died in a fire. But what Dolores says during the dream and the blood running from her tummy (not to mention the real reason for the water) are unanswerable until the ending. Despite the eeriness of the scene, the atmosphere of it evokes something deeper to where I felt like this was a genuinely emotional, beautiful scene. The grief and love that was obvious in Leo's eyes made that scene more about feelings rather than fear.
One huge triumph of this movie is that it convinces you to trust Leonardo Dicaprio's character. The reason we believed and saw everything with the perspective that we do is because we immediately believe that Teddy Daniels knows what he's talking about and that he has truly been investigating this "conspiracy theory" about Shutter Island for as long as he says he has. We also believe his entire history is true, that his wife died in an apartment fire, that he's been searching for the pyro who did it, and that he has been a marshall since the war. And because of this perspective that we take on as soon as the movie begins, we also trust Teddy's instincts about the place and how he feels like something is going on, Dr. Cawley and how he must be untrustworthy, and the fact that the patients are being coached on how to act around him. Of course that last one is correct, but not for the reason we imagine. The story, in essence, convinces us to trust the most UNTRUSTWORTHY perspective in the story. And because of this, we are manipulated just like Teddy, and interpret things just like Teddy throughout the entire film.
This movie acts as an optical illusion. Have you ever seen a picture that looks like one thing when you look at it from one perspective, but then looking at it from a completely different perspective the picture changes entirely? Shutter Island is the movie version of that type of picture. Seeing it for the first time, you read and interpret things one way. However, after the big reveal at the end, upon second viewing, your perspective is completely changed and you read and interpret things in a completely different way.
For example, the first view of the movie, you know that Dr. Cawley is lying about something, so you obviously interpret this as a threat. Dr. Cawley then becomes an enemy and the rest of the film he's the bad guy. But then the reveal happens, and it's discovered that he has been lying, but only to save Teddy's life (or sanity, rather). Upon second viewing his intentions are interpreted in a completely different way and it's easy to realize that many of his lines were not meant the way they sounded the first time. A line like "Sanity is not a choice. You can't just choose to get over it," may have come across cold and sarcastic at first, but the 2nd time around it is the truest statement of compassion that Cawley can say to Teddy. It's genius writing to be completely convincing one way and then equally convincing another. The movie offers 2 different experiences, as though you are seeing two separate movies when entering the theater to see Shutter Island for a 2nd time.
There are clues throughout the movie that point to the finale, things that are subtle but there. As I was watching, I kept wondering about the band-aid on Leo's forehead. Later it is revealed that just the week before he was in a fight and nearly killed another patient. When Teddy arrives on the island it's eerie how the guards, nurses, and patients react to him. It seems like something is going on, but then it is revealed that they are all in on a large role-play. The eerie feeling was real, but not for the reasons we thought.
As the role-play continues, there are many moments that are staged to see if they can nudge Teddy into realization. When Cawley says to Teddy "Her refusal to face what she had done is the reason she is here," he's telling him that's why he is in here. When Teddy interviews "Rachel," she paints a picture of what she did that day to look like the scene that drove Teddy mad, originally. It should sound familiar to him, but it doesn't because he's blocked it out. When they leave the room, Cawley says "Sorry I didn't stop her. I didn't want to interrupt, I thought she might tell you something." At first the line might mean for "Rachel" to help the on-going investigation, but the second time around it means that Teddy was supposed to have an epiphany from hearing "Rachel's" recreation of Dolores's crime. That "Rachel" may have "told" him something that would help the truth seep into his brain.
One of the largest parts of irony in the movie is Teddy's attitude to the "prisoners" around him on the island. He's smug and unfeeling towards them, not realizing that he's one of them. That he, in fact, is the most dangerous one of them. He feels that none of them deserve to have calm because they are mostly all murderers. It's an interesting thing to see once you know Teddy is just like the rest of them and that ultimately he is talking about himself and how he feels about his own crimes, in those moments.
Perhaps one of the most affecting scenes in the entire movie was when Teddy remembers what truly happened in his life to put him on Shutter Island. To me, it was one of the most affecting scenes I've ever seen in ANY movie. When Teddy is reminded of the terrible crime his wife committed by drowning their children, and then he has to pull them from the lake, I couldn't believe my eyes. The scene is so twisted and tragic all at the same time.
Teddy asks where the kids are and Dolores answers:
"They're in school."
"Honey, it's Saturday. School's not in on Saturday."
Then, Michelle Williams does this perfectly horrifying grin and says "My school is..."
It's at this point that Teddy realizes what has happened, and Leo's portrayal of this reaction haunted me for days. As horrifying as Teddy's dreams and visions have been throughout the film, nothing is more terrifying and twisted than what actually happened with him, his wife, and children. I was absolutely dumbfounded, too shocked to react emotionally, even though it was truly the most heartbreaking moment of the entire film. The scene became even more chilling as the absence of music became more obvious, and happy little chirping birds were heard as Teddy laid his children down, dead and cold, on the bank of the lake. Of course, it was at this point the blood and the water covering Dolores are explained from the first dream sequence. She was wet from drowning the kids, and she was bleeding from Teddy's bullet in her tummy.
When Teddy comes back from this realization and has finally been reset, Cawley and Chuck hope that they've won the Psychology war, as the entire film comes down to warfare. Can they convince the other side to surrender to their methods if they show them their methods can work? However, the twists of this film aren't over. Although Teddy has accepted reality and understands what has happened, (that he created another identity to save himself from living with the guilt of killing his wife), and despite the fact that he knows he'll be lobotonized if he were to regress, Teddy turns to Chuck and pretends to have slipped back into his old persona.
Teddy: So what's our next move?
Chuck: You tell me.
Teddy: I gotta get off this rock, Chuck. Get back to the mainland. Whatever the hell's going on here, it's bad.
Sadly, Chuck turns and gives a signal to Cawley that it didn't work. The people are ready to take Teddy away for the procedure immediately. As they walk towards Teddy and Chuck, Teddy says "You know, this place makes me wonder."
Chuck : Yeah, what's that, boss?
Teddy : Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?
And with that, Teddy is taken away to lose his memory and everything that makes him himself. Despite being reset and seemingly sane once again, it was too much for him to live the way he was living, knowing that he'd either go crazy, or that he had allowed his family to be destroyed. The last image of Teddy willingly marching off in front of the men who would take away his life and identity is one of the most eerie moments, to me. And yet, because it was his decision, or could be interpreted as so, it doesn't feel like a complete loss. The war between the two schools of thought in psychology was lost for Cawley, but for for Teddy, peace was finally gained.
It's a horrific twist of irony. All Cawley wanted to do was bring peace and calm to his patients without violent and inhumane procedures, but the one patient that could help him win the battle against those means, would end up choosing those means to find peace.
Overall, I think it could be argued that this is Leonardo Dicaprio's best performance, and one of Martin Scorsese's best movies. In my opinion it is! Definitely one of the best films I've seen within the last 5 years. Breaking down this film has only strengthened my adoration for it and helped me to see the complexity of film in general. It's films like this that remind us what a movie can do and how it could affect people, and it's movies like this that remind me why I love film in the first place!