I had heard a lot about Director Martin Scorsese. I “experienced” him yesterday late evening. The timing was perfect for the gripping movie called “Shutter Island” set in the 1950’s in an isolated island. Truly, going through the two hour celluloid treat by Scorsese is almost like savouring an unputdownable saga in print, speaking in cinematic parlance, the same would be something akin to “unpausable”
Edward Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a richly decorated war veteran and post war US Federal Marshal visits the Shutter Island, on the Boston harbor, on a mission to find an escaped mental patient. He is joined by Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), another Marshall, from Seattle.
Shutter Island houses the notorious Ashecliff Lunatic Asylum which is less a mental hospital and more a tightly guarded prison with electrified perimeters et al; its inmates are the most dangerously violent, criminally insane men and women shunned by Civil Society. They are the clinically hopeless cases declared to be beyond correction or cure. The penitentiary is as much known for its homicidal maniacs as for the monumental psychiatric researches and treatments conducted therein. More so, due to the charismatic persona and dedication of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital, who apparently believes that even the worst psychiatric patient can be reached across by patient understanding, love and care. Ashecliff is run on special grant by the US Government but inside its premises it is Dr. Cawley’s rules that reign supreme.
It is impossible to break in or out of this closely guarded mental asylum. But one of the convicts does – Rachel Solando, who is charged of cold bloodedly drowning her own children, runs away, in fact, disappears, from the asylum, without leaving a clue, one night. Rachel is cunningly shrewd, desparate, hopelessly incurable and an imminent threat to society if let loose. The primary obstruction in her treatment is her adamant belief that her children are still alive and that she is the owner of the hospital grounds while the doctors, nurses, orderlies and other staff of the hospital are in fact her employees – the milkmen, postmen, deliverymen etc.
It is Edward Daniel’s (nicknamed Teddy) job to find out Rachel and put her back in the cell, the assignment made tougher by the unrelenting Dr. Cawley who is reluctant to extend cooperation in any form, the inmates including the staff as well as the patients who seem to know more than they are ready to divulge and the staunch belief of the residents including the cops that it is impossible for Rachel to survive on her own in the violent storm ridden island outside the asylum and that most probably she is already dead. Suspicion thickens when Teddy learns that Rachel’s primary psychiatrist, Dr. Lester Sheehan, has been sent off to a long pending vacation the very morning they have arrived at the island to investigate her disappearance.
Soon Teddy is caught in a maze of conspiracies where his own sanity is very much at stake. Teddy confesses to Chuck that finding Rachel is not the only task he has on his mind. There is a personal vendetta too. Teddy is actually looking for one Andrew Laeddis, the maintenance man and firebug, who put the apartment on fire in which Teddy’s family resided and eventually his wife died. During trials, Andrew confessed that it was the “voices in his mind” which instigated him to lit the match. The Court lets Andrew go unpunished on medical grounds. Thereafter, Laeddis vanishes into thin air. But one George Noyce, a former inmate of Ashecliff, secretly passes on the information to Teddy that Laeddis is very much in Ashecliff though his name does not appear on records.
Teddy’s search for Laeddis leads to more mysteries. Who is the 67th patient in Ashecliff while the record shows only 66 patients? Added to this is the sudden return of Rachel without a scratch on her body as though she were never gone! Is she really who she claims to be? Then the mysterious Light House and the forbidden erstwhile military Fort or Ward C of the hospital which houses the most dangerous homicidal maniacs who are never let out in the open! The screams which disturb the peace of the night coming from the direction of Ward C! The unconscionable, medically unethical, psychosurgical experiments and the excruciatingly painful transorbital lobotomies rumoured to be undertaken in the dark dungeons of the Light House, on the poor patients to calm them down and transform them into zombies. The innocuous Guinea Pigs are those men and women who have already been branded as lunatics by the world and their protests go unheard as deliriums of unhinged minds. Lastly, Chuck, his co-Marshall, whom Teddy does not know whether to believe or not to believe, whether he is a friend or a foe!
And above all, Teddy himself! His blinding migraines! His acute photosensitivity and dizzy spells! The pills which are forced down his throat as antidotes in the name of relief! His haunting past! His unforgettable stint at the German Concentration Camps- the Dachau! His oft repeated nightmares! The little girl who invariably torments him in his dreams! The smoothness with which he has been brought to this island reeks the stench of a larger Governmental undercover operation and political intrigue! But the ultimate noose is tightened when Teddy comes to know that he cannot leave the island because the only one ferry which takes islanders out to the mainland is also controlled by Dr. Cawley. Is Teddy safe in Shutter Island?
Thus unfolds the teeth clenching, nerve ripping suspense thriller that is Scorsese’s Shutter Island. It is hard to tell whether the ambience jells with the plot or the plot is a deceptively innocent outcome of the ambience itself. The island with its stormy coasts, eerie graveyards, dense jungles and above all the gloomy penitentiary provides the perfect backdrop for the hair raising adventures of Teddy and Chuck! The background score adds considerable hair splits to goose bumps!
I am not a Leonardo De Caprio fan but I cannot imagine anyone else in Teddy’s role as well. And what to speak of the doyen of the silver screen – Sir Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley? The man who is an institution in himself! An actor who brings to life a character who is as much in the dark as he himself keeps others in dark. He has much to hide and less to reveal. He who has a unique and dual role to play – that of a doctor devoted to his profession as well as a human being committed to compassion and betterment of mankind.
Finally, the message of the movie because Martin Scorsese is just not two hour Hollywood Hungama! He raises the most controversial issue of this century, nay, era when he tugs at the thin line of demarcation between sanity and insanity. The parting dialogue of Edward Daniels throws to the fore the most contemporaneous question of today’s turbulent times. What is sanity? The structure of thoughts and mental frame approved by the majority in conformity with societal norms or is there any other definition beyond the stereotypical notions? A tortured mind is also a product of the ravages and oppressions of the social system in which he lives. So sanity rests with insanity side by side; the choice is ours what to adopt and embrace - what is the best way to be or as Teddy’s convoluted mind ponders “which would be worse to live as a monster or die as a good man”. I think we all need to think and rethink over that.