Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley
(R, 138 min.)
"A tortured soul makes others dance to the music of his own despair." John Milton
This film is Gothic with a capital G. A remote island prison for the criminally insane, its loony residents just slightly more alarming than the icily polite psychiatrist who runs the place. And then there’s the raging storm that shuts off the electricity and strands the two marshals there searching for a missing patient.
Things look bad from the very start, even on the ferry ride over, with Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) kneeling over the porcelain in the men’s room in a fit of vomiting not entirely explained away by seasickness. Yes, he tells his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), that he has a "problem with water," but the ferry taking them to Shutter Island is in relatively calm seas.
The island itself juts out of the ocean with primordial dread, a craggy fortress of sheer black cliffs, electronic barbed wire, and slightly insolent armed policeman who insist on taking the marshals' firearms from them. If there were anywhere a US marshal would want a handy pistol at his side, it is here, where the prisoners – patients are what Dr. Cawley calls them – seem to have free run of the place. That is until you look down at their ankles, which are manacled with hefty chains.
Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains that patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has disappeared from her locked room without a trace. But getting the doctor and his staff – he has an ample supply of the white-coated crew – to assist the marshals is like pulling teeth. Sure, Dr. Cawley is polite and even somewhat charming, but is there an underlying menace as well? Think Claude Rains in Notorious, or James Mason in North By Northwest, observing the outward courtesies but with an certain ruthlessness beneath the smile. At least that’s how Teddy sees it.
Which is why he decides to explore the island on his own, in spite of the oncoming storm that is beginning to howl ashore, toppling trees and saturating everything. Of course, we aren’t surprised when he finds a deserted cemetery to slog around in, and we know he won’t be able to resist the isolated lighthouse perched on the rocky shore. Sure, the guards says it houses a sewage treatment plant, but someone else suggests it's used for secret lobotomies, a treatment Dr. Cawley says he rejects as old fashioned. It is, after all, 1954. And why do we know, as soon as we see it, that Ward C, the old Civil War fort used for the most violent offenders, will draw Marshal Teddy Daniels to itself like a fly to honey, or perhaps more accurately, like maggots to rotted meat.
Yes, the atmosphere is a little overdone; it even makes Scooby Doo seem nuanced, but it does work its spell on us. More echoes of Hitchcock and his masterpiece Vertigo in Teddy’s fear of heights, his precipitous climb up and down the rocky cliffs to the crashing waves beneath, and the then there’s the frantic scramble up the spiral staircase in the lighthouse, reminding us of that final scene in the James Steward/Kim Novak classic just mentioned.
Sharp contrasts unbalance us even more. The patients trim flowers along the manicured lawns, all smiles above and manacled feet below. The police are more hindrance that a help – another Hitchcock theme. And Dr. Cawley’s lavish Victorian living quarters, all polished mahogany, cut crystal and recorded Mahler, are undercut by the jarring note of Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow) whose consonants hint at a Nazi past only too familiar to Marshal Daniels, who had liberated Dachau.
More and more disquieting too are Marshal Daniels’s nightmares, vivid and horrible interludes that bookend his migraine headaches. He is back at Dachau, where the frozen corpses are piled up like human snow banks, covered with ice, but still clearly visible in their death throes. Then the nightmares begin to meld with the crimes committed by the missing patient, a mother who has drowned her three children. And we begin to wonder if the “aspirin” Dr. Cawley has given Marshall Daniel for his headache is indeed a benign white pill or something more sinister.
All this is set against a world in 1954, not quite the sanitized conformity we are induced to remember from nostalgic television reruns. The war is a wound not yet healed, at least not psychologically for Teddy Daniels, and psychiatry is at a crossroad. The lobotomy, a procedure wherein the frontal cortex of the brain is surgically severed, is still a mainstream procedure. (Twenty thousand such operations had been performed by 1951 before antipsychotic drugs begin to replace that barbaric treatment.) Dr. Cawley speaks of psychotherapy, the professional art of listening, as his preferred method of treatment. But are we prepared to believe him?
What is dawning on the world at that time, as it does on us the audience, is the surreal world of the mind, its cunning, its delusions, its frantic effort to cordon off pain and create an alternate reality. Shutter Island offers up a terrifying sampling of all of the above. It is up to up to separate truth from delusion.
We have no idea what the food is like on Shutter Island. Marshall Teddy Daniels is too busy pursuing missing patients, dodging rain driven gales, falling trees, and large black rats to sit down for too many meals there. And in between the seasickness and his migraine headache, we doubt he’d be too interested in eating anyway.
But real life prisoners have to eat, and a few of them have managed a detour around the notorious institutional fare. One of them is John Mandala, “The Jailhouse Gourmet,” now under medium security at New York’s Sing Sing Prison. He shares a single stove with 75 other men who are Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Asian, African-American, Italian, and Caucasian. Small groups share “the cost, preparation and enjoyment of a great meal.”
I have taken the liberty of changing his Kisses and Peanut Butter Sundae to Prison Peanut Butter Sundae, but it is just as sweet, chocolaty, and delicious.
Enjoy it and your freedom as well.
Prison Peanut Butter Sundae
- 16 Hershey's Kisses Milk Chocolates
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup Reese's Creamy Peanut Butter
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 8 scoops vanilla ice cream Whipped cream
- Additional Hershey's Kisses(r) Milk Chocolates
- Remove wrappers from chocolate pieces;
- Chop chocolate pieces into quarters.
- In small bowl, using whisk, gradually stir water into peanut butter until smooth.
- Add corn syrup and vanilla; stir until smooth.
- Spoon peanut butter sauce and chocolate pieces over individual servings of ice cream.
- Garnish with whipped cream and additional chocolate pieces.
Recipe Source: The Cellblock Cafe