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The horror film genre has always been boring to me: the same camera angles and quick cuts to try to get us to fear what lies behind the main character. Most horror films are special effects and gore-driven now that it has become hard to see whether or not there was even a story to begin with. But watching Martin Scorsese’s new film “Shutter Island,” adapted from Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel, all my previous doubts disappeared.
The film begins with Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), as they make their way via ferry to the titular Shutter Island penitentiary, an asylum for the criminally insane. The year is 1954 and their mission is to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients, Emily Mortimer, a child killer who was locked up in her room at 10 p.m. for lights out and vanished by midnight. The door was locked and the window barred; how did she get out?
While this question begins the film’s suspenseful plot, ultimately it is nothing more than a sideline for what real horrors are—or aren’t—taking place on Shutter Island.
Their investigation begins, but even from the get-go there is an odd level of tension, a feeling about the place and staff difficult to shake.
The dread starts to set in during the opening credits with a marvelously ominous score. The island staff and even the patients seem a bit off, almost as if coached, their collective fear keeping them in line. Teddy sees this, but can’t even begin to comprehend what he’s getting into. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the facility’s director, and his cohort, Dr. Naehring, seem particularly insidious.
Scorsese’s work throughout the film to build the cryptic atmosphere of the island is masterful. His knowledge of film is nearly unparalleled, and his care in development is similar to the amount of work James Cameron put into the minute details of Pandora in “Avatar.” Dr. Crawley’s office is adorned with turn of the century portraits of how mental patients used to be handled, and the Civil War era fortress where the most dangerous patients are kept always seems to loom over the proceedings. The wall separating the sanitarium from the rest of the island has a large amount of presence; as Teddy and Chuck are separated from the mainland, so are the patients separated from the world.
The perception of reality presented in the film is particularly interesting; not even 15 minutes into the film viewers are presented with past events in Teddy’s life, and the chilling horror from these images creates a fear that lingers and brings tension to the forefront of the film. The gradual slip from reality becomes much more apparent as the film progresses.
The majority of Scorsese’s films have a character telling the story, whether in voice over form in “Goodfellas” or through camera perspective ala “Gangs of New York.” With most of these films there’s a reliable narrator with an omniscient point of view, but with “Shutter Island” we become Teddy Daniels. We feel what he feels, see what he sees and this is where the fear comes from; we aren’t in reality, we’re in his mind.
Scorsese’s precision in slowly breaking down our perception of reality is one for future horror films to look to and learn from, because the film’s horror doesn’t come from what we don’t know, it’s what we think we know.
Contact CU Independent Multimedia Editor Greg O’Brien at Gregory.firstname.lastname@example.org.