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February 23, 2011


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Glenn, I tried to watch Shutter Island again recently, but right out of the chute I couldn't answer how they got Leonardo on the boat to the island to begin with. Since it's all an elaborate ruse to wean him from his false identity by playing to it as if it was true, this had to begin somewhere. So he went from imprisonment on the island, then to the mainland, and then onto the boat where he can play a detective going to the island to investigate. How did they block out his memory of being a prisoner (patient) on the island in the first place, in order to get round to playing out this drama for him?

Clearly, that would have been impossible. Now, of course, a film does not have to be rational, but with the twist of the doctors' explanation at the end, they pretend to be grounding it in rationality. This issue makes me discount the film's dramatic value altogether. It's looney and makes no sense.

Glenn Kenny

You write: "Clearly, that would have been impossible." About your use of the word "clearly." One could turn it around on you, and say, "Clearly, you merely cannot imagine how such a thing COULD be possible." Because there's nothing PHYSICALLY impossible about it. It could very well have been that the character was put under heavy sedation, dressed in the clothes he would have been wearing as a Marshall, and was so deluded that when he woke up and saw how he was dressed and became oriented to his physical situation and setting, immediately got into "character." Now that might not be entirely probable, it may in fact go wildly against what might be psychologically likely or predictable in real-life cases involving even the most severe delusions, and it may even be, as you say, "looney," but it's not physically impossible, the way lighting a match by striking it on a marshmallow is physically impossible. What's impossible in "Shutter Island," for you, is the willing suspension of disbelief, which every film viewer applies in degrees. You could get hung up, for instance, by the fact that "Inception" gives no credible physical explanation of how DiCaprio's character in that film is actually able to inhabit the dreams of the film's other characters; you're shown some strings tied to some people's arms, and some electronic equipment, and you're asked to believe that does the trick, and either you buy it, or you don't. You don't buy "Shutter Island," and you can't get past the sticking point you cite. I don't mean to be too rude, but that's not my problem anymore. And I'm sorry you feel that way, but there's nothing I can really do to make you think or feel differently, because, no, I can't tell you how "they" made it "work." And I honestly don't care. For me, the movie's about a different thing altogether.


Ha. Okay, you honed in on the weakest sentence. I'm just telling you my reaction on trying to watch it twice. I liked it fine the first time. I liked "Inception" even better the second time, even while thinking it was bullshit. So suspension of disbelief is not really necessary. What happens in "Shutter Island" is CLEARLY possible, then, if that's the way you want to put it. I don't care, either. If you want to dwell on your superior interpretation, congratulations. I suppose you've written about that previously, and you talked about it in the link above so you won't go into it again here. But it's still weak sauce, meaningful to you and some few other dweebs, I suppose. (Gee, I don't mean to be rude, either.)


Here's your weakness: "You could get hung up, for instance, by the fact that "Inception" gives no credible physical explanation of how DiCaprio's character in that film is actually able to inhabit the dreams of the film's other characters"

What is the word "actually" doing here? Nothing in the film is actually happening. If you think it is, you've taken suspension of disbelief a step too far, like, Jesus died for you, too, man.


wow, ET - that's a remarkably civil reply by Mr. Kenny and you just stirred up a hornet's nest with your snarky response. Well played, sir. I'm somewhere in the middle on the virtues of Shutter Island (don't love it, don't hate it), but I'm constantly reminded of what Raymond Durgnat deemed 'the plausibles'. Durgnat on Hitch: 'the bane of his life was... spectators who want their plots convincing, when Hitchcock wanted them poetic, Surrealist, absurdist,
Alice in Thrillerland-ish'. Just a thought.


Oh, I thought Mr. Kenny's response was actually snarky and off point. But I perhaps did not do a good enough job of asking my question, which was merely a straightforward reaction that I didn't have the first time. RESET, then, if all will allow me.

By the time we have some idea of what's actually going on in "Shutter Island," we're way past the introductory scene of arriving on the ferry, so I think we're not inclined to reflect on it. But it struck me the second time, "How did he get there?" Of course, the movie has to start somewhere, but we're obliged to fill in a plausible backstory, otherwise there's no context, and the actions can have no meaning, therefore, there can be no suspension of disbelief, we cannot identify with the characters or events, and therefore no dramatic impact. Poetic is fine, but then what is the need to kowtow to narrative at all? What is the need for an explanation at the end of it? The explanation given pays homage to the convention of plausible events. Did Scorsese chicken out and abandon poetry, then? Like Hitchcock at the end of "Psycho?"

He cheats us into assuming one plausible backstory at the beginning, then turns it around by presenting a completely different backstory. If he had abandoned plausibility altogether, even the esteemed Mr. Kenny could not have defended the film as anything more than a collection of images, the interpretation of which is certainly free for all.

Scott Nye

The explanation at the end does overdo things quite a bit, but...there is no scene before the boat. If it was important to know how DiCaprio got on the boat, what he thought happened before the boat, or anything else, they would have had a scene before the boat. The film is a journey through Teddy/Andrew's mind, and the most dramatically effective path is to take us through the same delusion he's lived with for...two years if I recall correctly. The natural narrative way to do this is to start the film on the boat.


Started rewatching it last night to see how it held up and instead of focusing on Teddy, instead enjoyed watching the other characters' treatment, literally, of Teddy and his quest. Some openly mocking, others wanting to help. Unlike The Wicker Man, with which others have noticed many similarities, the islanders are not all united in the 'game'. That tension and interplay of eye contact added another ambiguous layer.

Glenn Kenny

"If you want to dwell on your superior interpretation, congratulations."


'Shutter Island', possibly the finest film of... 1999.


My take on the boat scene is that the doctors figured they needed Daniels to believe that when he was on the boat, he needed to believe he was a US Marshal going to the island for the first time, and somebody had an idea for how to do that, and then they tried it, and it worked. Then, later, all the stuff that's in the movie happened.

Nicolas Leblanc

@manning: I was a little *too* receptive to that aspect the first time around, which gave the game away for me. The fact that each character is obviously putting on a performance of variable quality is so well-made that the secret couldn't survive (I also think it might have worked better had DiCaprio seemed a little wearier). But watching these meta-performance was a lot of fun especially Ruffalo and Levine (part of what makes his character so chilling is that he's one of the only one on the island who's not playing).

@ET: What GK said is actually my best guess.
'It could very well have been that the character was put under heavy sedation, dressed in the clothes he would have been wearing as a Marshall, and was so deluded that when he woke up and saw how he was dressed and became oriented to his physical situation and setting, immediately got into "character."'

But I guess most of the people you will find on that comment board (myself included) were too wowed by the numerous formal virtues to care about this. I don't even think you could place the explanation of "How did they get Teddy on the boat?" anywhere in the film.

Chris O.

Haven't listened to the podcast yet, but some of you may be interested in this list of Scorsese's favorite horror films and have fun coming up wit ingredients he may have culled from each one to throw into the SHUTTER ISLAND stew. I haven't seen ISLE OF THE DEAD but I understand that was probably a huge inspiration.


I think I may have asked this before, but does anyone know what prints are hanging in Dr. Cawley's office? I think one is a William Blake, but I'm not sure.


It's interesting at what point someone will disconnect from a dream narrative as unbelievable. Why did many fans of the first three Indiana Jones films draw the line at CRYSTAL SKULLS as being ridiculous?
Why wouldn't DiCaprio's character warrant the time and energy needed to produce such an elaborate ruse by a respected hospital and staff unless it was to buy into SHUTTER ISLAND as film by Martin Scorese..or Fritz Lang...or Rivette?
Of course everything is relative. Even a master fabulist like Nabokov once wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Herald complaining about plot inconsistencies in the comic Rex Morgan


Heard the interview. Glenn had a response to Shutter Island in a deeply personal way, which by nature supercedes all other Glenn-the-professional-film-critic musings. Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Nuf said. BTW...regarding that response, which was an identification with a man who doesn't know how to stop hurting himself...yes, I too can relate (even if I'm a female). I'm my own worst enemy kind of thing. Universal for those who struggle with this, who have only become aware of this later in life. At least to see it...well, I'll end therapy 101 now.

Michael Adams

One minor thing that bothered me is how the two protagonists meet on the boat after it's moving. Unlike Grant and Kerr in Affair to Remember, it's a small boat. Wouldn't they have bumped into each other earlier?


ET >>How did they block out his memory of being a prisoner (patient) on the island in the first place, in order to get round to playing out this drama for him?<<

Well, clearly, nobody needed to block out anything. You do remember that: Teddy = crazy. Right? You still with us? I mean, given the way he was, I doubt he ever really took it in that he was a patient. He was offered a situation where he could be "himself" (without the pesky reality being a nuisance) and he embraced it with open arms (as one in his situation might be likely to do.) The past was clearly very blurry to him in general. Not the most reliable narrator and all that.

I think the idea that Teddy was escorted to the boat by a few staff members, who sedated him, re-dressed him, took him a few miles to the sea, waited till he woke up and then just "let him loose" is perfectly acceptable. Not that it really matters to me. Suspension of disbelief is your friend. Well, if you let it be, that is.

Thanks for the podcast, it was good stuff.

Gordon Cameron

>Why did many fans of the first three Indiana Jones films draw the line at CRYSTAL SKULLS as being ridiculous?

As you say, it's relative, and coming up with a suspension-of-disbelief-friendly narrative (particularly within genres that incorporate elements of fantasy or the supernatural) is more art than science. If I may propose a suggestion, it's that the first 3 Indy movies respected the relative frailty of Indy himself as a physical object, the surrounding supernatural craziness notwithstanding. In Raiders the German Mechanic beats him to within in inch of his life and he very amusingly needs a gun to take down the swordsman; in Temple of Doom he staggers up the bridge/ladder after the climax and wearily produces the Sankara stone; in Last Crusade he narrowly evades a tank crash but never seems to be employing any strength or durability that a person mightn't, within reason, be imagined to possess. The nuke-the-fridge episode goes a bit further, seeming to impose a Tom & Jerry-esque cartoon durability on the character. For some, at least, it crosses a line. The supernatural elements in all 4 movies are consistently (and joyfully) absurd and unreal, but a certain amount of restraint is used in the "realistic" bits that, detractors feel, was abandoned in Crystal Skull.

For my part, nuke-the-fridge is a less glaring flaw than the convoluted plotting in the second half, the surfeit of unnecessary/redundant supporting characters, and the oddly disengaged performance of Karen Allen, who seems to express no sense of imminent danger and instead is anticipating her honking big paycheck. But that's a discussion for another time...

John Keefer

Thank you for saving me from the boredom that is the Filmspotting podcast. This is great!

Any interest in, perhaps, the Kenny Podcast?...PodKenny-ast? I'm not good at titles.


I'm a big admirer of Shutter Island and I think it's a better film on the second viewing. The first viewing experience seems bent of the notion of 'figuring it out' --well, anyone who is even the least bit attentive is going to figure it before the end of the second act if not sooneer. After that it's hard not to feel a little deflated by the experience and wait for the inevitable. The second viewing is another story completely. As much as this story is about DiCaprio the performances of those around him --especially Mark Rufallo-- become something really special and quite profound.


GK - first let me say, if I may without being too awkward, that I admire the way your mind works, and your relationship and dedication to film. Thomas Mann said something along the lines of high art being an arrow whose tip is anointed with love. The same could be said of criticism. I wish there were more critics like you, but, then, if there were, there wouldn't be anything special about your blog. Which is entirely not the case.

I want to say thanks, too, for providing me - and all the others who pay attention to what you are saying - with a distillation of your knowledge and experience of film. I would love to have the kind of background in film you have; alas, I do not. Reading your blog allows me to feel like I'm not quite the novice I actually am when it comes to film, a medium I've been in love with for what seems like most of my life, or the part of my life that matters, anyway.

That being said, I want to say a thing or three about Shutter Island. I loved that film. And I'm well aware, perhaps more than most (I am a writer, I teach creative writing, my whole life revolves around looking at "story," the ways that writers succeed, and fail, and do both at the same time) about the difficulties with the conceit on which the story is founded...they almost never work, and always feel like the undergrad-ish story ending of, "and then he woke up." I know the general public tends to have a thing for stuff like that, it seems interesting and profound at the moment, it's shocking - momentarily - but such endings/conceits very rarely wear well over time. I'm thinking Momento, right now, which, when I was in my early 20s, was totally amazing, but now looks like not so interesting, immature, cliched narrative trickery - despite how well made it is. Shutter Island, in my mind, is similar in its dependence on conceit, and far less successful in pulling off both its execution (any number of "unbelievable" or "inexplicable" things can be found in Shutter Island: who cares) and its closing (which is what conceits almost always depend very heavily on) than a film like Momento, but is less successful exactly because it's ten-times the film. Why? I think it's all in the relationship between Scorsese and Dicaprio's character. I've watched very few films in which the director so clearly felt so much compassion for a character that it was actually heart-rending to watch. The depth of feeling Scorsese has for that man, the horror of his history, and the horror - and pain - of what he's become because of that history, well, it completely floors me every time I watch it. To take on something as impossible as the trauma of the death camps from the pov of an American soldier, and what he became largely if not entirely as a result of that experience, plus the unspeakable trauma that follows with his wife and children, and all that within a genre-esque film, all the while trying to stay true to certain noir/psychological thriller genre conventions...how could that kind of ambition not warp whatever it touches? Moby Dick is a great book; it is far from perfect. The Quiet American might be a perfect book; it does not belong in the upper echelons of literature. I'm don't think the analogy entirely works, but you get the idea. All this is to say that, someday down the road, I think Scorsese's last two films will be seen as either a turning point, or a high point, or a beautiful aberration in his career. After all these years of obsessing over obsessed men, he has finally found a way to have compassion for his men - rather than his standard "cool-to-cold" distance on his male protagonists, so cold that it borders on cruel at times (i.e., The Kind of Comedy). Compassion + Ironic distance = Great and/or Significant Art. I recall you saying something, when you first watched the film, that your feeling was it was a very personal film for Scorsese. I agree; it has that feeling of a film kept very close to him, so close that, in fact, in some ways he lost control of the film, didn't quite know what to do with it, didn't quite know how to keep things steady (which he clearly did with The Aviator, which was a clean, cold, shiny, well-made object almost entirely without pathos). And by loss of control I mean, the film vacillates between moments of pure noir genre atmosphere, to moments of mystery/whodunnit/etc., to moments of I-can-barely-watch-this-it's-so-painful drama, to classic moments of scorsese-esque cool ironic distance - and all this while somehow managing to stay together and relatively coherent, while we watch a man suffer and suffer and suffer. It's such a deeply flawed film, and could have so easily, and almost did, go completely off the rails. But I loved it, in part, for that exact reason. I got to watch a master pushing his boundaries, almost falling flat on his face while doing so; I got to watch Leo pull of a performance that will likely rank some day as one of his best, in part because it wasn't a straight drama; I saw Mark Ruffalo completely rock a secondary role (his performance really shines with subsequent viewings); and I got to see Scorsese's heart begin to shine. I hope it doesn't stop there.

Thanks for a great blog.


SHUTTER ISLAND double feature with Truffaut's STORY OF ADELE H.?

Both are about self-destructive characters who arrive by boat to an island in a delusional state.
Both are haunted by a family downing and are tricked by a person in authority(Psychiatrist/Hypnotist).
Both begin with the search for a runaway person (ie gothic romance or crime thriller) but evolves into a darker personal hell.

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