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Not Quite Horror: Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island

Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, Scorcese is at it again with his esteemed adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s celebrated novel, Shutter Island.

Boston, 1954. Two law enforcement officials, shivering in period-appropriate suits and hats, advance slowly upon a mysterious, fog-covered island housing a mental institution for the criminally, dangerously insane. One of these men is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It has to be Scorcese, it has to be Dennis Lehane and it has to be Not Quite Horror.

As adaptations of Lehane’s work go, Shutter Island is one of the most faithful. Aside from maybe Gone Baby Gone, which loses points for fudging the central relationship between the two detectives, that informed much of his work. And it’s easily the best example of his ability to slowly unravel a mystery without making it seem like anything is unravelling at all.

Although Scorcese’s adaptation is a softer affair than the source material, it’s nonetheless dripping with suspense and intrigue. DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo, so good at playing officials) arrive on the island, reluctantly surrender their guns and immediately decide something sinister is afoot. From Nazi doctors to bizarre experimentation, all is not right.

The strength of Lehane’s prose lies in its ability to wrong-foot us at every turn. Just when we think we’ve figured something out, another layer is added to the mystery. The medium of film limits Scorcese from showing us too much of anything, lest we start piecing things together, so instead he relies on eerie flashbacks, shocks of bloody violence and a brooding atmosphere.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island

An overbearing, honking non-score by Robbie Robertson, assembled from previously recorded material, butts in to every moment. Rather than undercutting the mystery, though, it adds to it. Likewise, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is gorgeously muddled by a near-constant layer of fog, or, increasingly frequently, sheaths of torrential rain.

Extreme weather is a recurring motif here, particularly when Shutter Island threatens to go full-on horror movie in a mausoleum-set night-time sequence, and another in the creepy, dilapidated, mysterious Ward C. It’s here, of course, Daniels meets Jackie Earle Haley’s scene-stealer. As George Noyce, Haley is giving precious moments to make an impression – and he does.

It’s interesting to note that the oft-derided reboot of A Nightmare On Elm Street, with Haley in the Krueger role, debuted the same year as Shutter Island. If only some of his twisted work here could’ve shone through the layers of CGI in that mess. Noyce’s jail cell scene is lit by a single match, meaning we have to strain to both listen to and see him.

Noyce’s appearance may startle Teddy, but it’s not the only instance of disturbing imagery in Shutter Island. The flashbacks, in particular, are loaded with gore, from a pile of dead bodies in the snow at Dachau to a soldier with half his face hanging off, not to mention Teddy’s burning and bloodied wife, who he is warned to let go of if he ever wants to leave the island.

The dead kids who pop up every now and again are full-on Shining-esque, while the recurring image of doors/gates being locked strengthens the idea that escape–from the island itself, as well as his own mind–is impossible the further Teddy ventures. As the two men are told, rather ominously, at one stage, there’s only one way on and off the island.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams in Shutter IslandShutter Island is a great two-hander between DiCaprio and Ruffalo, with ample support from a spooky Max Von Sydow and a slippery Ben Kingsley, whose Dr. Cawley remains a question mark right up until the end. Consistently correcting Daniels when he refers to patients as ‘prisoners’, he could feasibly be a do-gooder or a mad scientist. Maybe both.

Cawley actually gives us the twist early on, but we don’t pick up on it until it all unfolds. Up until everything starts to unravel for Teddy, none of it makes much sense, because it’s not supposed to. Scorcese wants us to be confused, disconcerted and unable to join the dots. We question how Teddy is struggling with personal demons; his alcoholism, PTSD from the war, his dead wife.

But nothing really adds up until the big reveal which, in Lehane’s source novel, is horrifying. Here, painted across DiCaprio’s pained, strained face, it reads bleaker, more heartbreakingly sad than anything else. Likewise, his final decision is pared down to read a bit more empathetic, but its impact is not dulled in the process. Rather, it hits a more emotional note.

Nobody does dark, slowly un-spooling mysteries like Dennis Lehane. And Shutter Island is arguably the greatest representation of that talent. Although Scorcese may seem an odd choice for this kind of material, the man behind the still-thrilling Cape Fear makes himself right at home in an out-of-the-way mental asylum, brimming with dark secrets.

Utilising a muted colour pallette of greys and browns, with permanently stewing skies above, Scorcese expertly emulates the overwhelming sense of foreboding Lehane created in his novel. It’s difficult to imagine Shutter Island being done any more justice than this. Almost as difficult it is to imagine ever truly being able to leave this creepy island itself behind.

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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