filmREVIEW: Shutter Island

Martin Scorcese 2010

Hannah Mowat

ShutterislandposterFast cuts, shots that tower above the camera, big music, pretty girls, bad men and a whole lot of mystery – if you want the thrills of a Hollywood film, then Scorcese’s latest film Shutter Island should do it for you. Set in 1950s America when therapeutic practice was rife with dangerous experimentation, Shutter Island, hospital for the most dangerous of prison inmates, reveals just how dark this period was in terms of dubious methods. A psychological mystery drama, this is any therapist’s nightmare.

US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his partner in crime Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of manic depressive Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer); sentenced to Life for the murder of her three children, she inhabits a dream world in which they are still alive and she is living in her old neighbourhood. During the investigation, Teddy reveals his real motive for accepting this mission from hell: a man named Andrew Laeddis, pyromaniac and murderer of Teddy’s wife, is apparently imprisoned on the island. Teddy also has information from another patient, George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley), that human experiments are being carried out and that Laeddis is being kept in the lighthouse, the island’s panoptical tower. And so the mind-game begins, in a trip that turns spectators into their very own patients…

Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head psychiatrist, and proud advocate for the talking method of therapy, who insists on calling inmates his patients, seems at first to be a revolutionary in his time. However, the many allusions to psychotropic medication – in the attempt to master mind control and create sleeper-agents for use in the Cold War, (don’t forget, this is the US in the 1950s, and Sen. Joe McCarthy really would have done anything to get the Reds out from under his bed) – and to brain surgery, more specifically to lobotomy (to which J F Kennedy’s sister Rosemary was subjected in 1941) suggest that Shutter Island is not as close to the cutting-edge of healthy practices as Dr Cawley would like us to think.

What is so very hard to stomach is that these kinds of treatments were acknowledged as acceptable, though perhaps not approved, therapeutic practice. What is even harder to digest is how much torture – let’s call a spade a spade – is carried out today ‘in the name of…’ If places like Shutter Island can exist in the filmic world, how many Guantanemo Bays exist here and now, where we don’t even want to imagine what goes on behind closed doors? This film leads us part of the way…


Hannah L Mowat has a BA in French with Film and graduated with First Class Honours from University College, London


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