Shutter Island

Gemma Clark reviews Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel ‘Shutter Island’, against the 2010 movie adaptation by Martin Scorcese. 

Mental health is a sensitive subject matter and one, as demonstrated by veteran thriller writer Dennis LeHane, to have not been fully understood in the 1950s. Adapted to film from the original 2003 novel by Martin Scorcese, his 2010 movie is as chilling as it is true to the original tale.

The story follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck as they venture to  Shutter Island, effectively an island-wide prison in the Pacific Ocean, a confine for the criminally insane, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the patients there. But Daniels reveals himself to have an ulterior motive for going there and all is revealed as they are whisked around, experiencing the delusions of the island and its maddened inhabitants.

The tale is plagued with questions: What is really going on in the lighthouse? What secrets are really housed in this dark place? What mad truth is to be found among the cruel and the condemned? What really happened to Teddy Daniels? Will they ever got off the island? And who is Andrew Laeddis?

Whirled around the island, embroiled in a vortex of self-assessment and secrecy, the pair attempt to unravel the mysteries, which increasingly appear to be intrinsic to Daniels himself.

The simple plot and solitary setting lend themselves to a movie translation and legendary film-maker Martin Scorsese creates a superb thriller with a stellar cast. Leonardo DiCaprio takes the role of protagonist Teddy Daniels, Mark Ruffalo as Chuck, Michelle Williams as DiCaprio’s wife, Dolores, and Sir Ben Kingsley rounds off the talent bomb in the role of Dr Cawley. Let it never be said that the man does things by halves. This film would not be the same without the quality of acting talent, plucked from around the globe, together with the depth and subtlety necessary to pull off such an emotive piece.

Such a stellar cast, of course, delivers sterling results, with DiCaprio in particular delivering a performance that shows an unparalleled representation of a man on the very edge of reason. Bridget Jones, move over; such disquiet is not to be mocked. The audience is interred into DiCaprio’s depiction of LeHane’s tortured hero and gripped unrelentingly through 138 minutes of mind-bending suspense.

Daniels is a tormented character, in both the book and the movie he is plagued with guilt and unrest regarding the death of his wife and children. Haunted by her memory, he lives his life in a perpetual state of grief and vengefulness. He displays a man on the very peripheries of right and wrong, truth, fallacy and justice. His inner turbulence is reflected in the wild fervor of the vicious island weather.

Despite his apparent resolve, despite all hateful suspicion of the medical staff in residence, his pity, even disgust towards its patients, the mind and past of Teddy Daniels is clearly a most turbulent place to have been. For a federal Marshall and man of the law, his mind is as much in disarray as the patients, his story as much a puzzle as the one he is trying to solve.

Thematically, Shutter Island, as a thriller/mystery, explores the tragedy of grief and morality, namely a moral fission within one’s self. The premature death of children is a travesty and the early death of a young spouse, tragic. No parent should have to bury their child, let alone do so beside the love of their life. Without spoiling any of the even more dramatic plot features, this horror worsens and it becomes clear the events that have so badly damaged Daniels and forever tie him to the island. As is the case with most things in this tale, nothing is simple, nor ever as it first appears.

With a strong focus on mental health, the film and book draw near exact parallels. Keeping close to the original story, Scorsese creates an atmospheric, character-driven haze in which the lingering effects of deep emotional trauma are investigated. Grief and irrationality can cause shock-waves through a life, and blame assignment can be both detrimental and the only cure.

We are not meant to like any of these characters. We are put on edge, made distrustful, tempered and conditioned to be suspicious of everything, even our own eyes. Both the book and movie have a lingering effect and give a fearful yearning for more.

Psychiatry is as interesting as it is terrifying. To involve yourself so deeply into the mind of another is a scary thing, and the persons shown here often already have more than one voice occupying the fuzzy space between their ears.

The greatest part of the movie is it’s chilling final line, delivered by DiCaprio; “Is it better to live as a monster, or die as a good man?”

Read, watch, do both. But rest assured that so long as you experience this, your attitude towards mental health will change. The brain’s power of self-preservation is extraordinary, and the creation of an entirely new reality is not unheard of. Prepare to be terrified and amazed.


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