One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted
One need not be a House
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
Than its interior Confronting
That Cooler Host
Emily Dickinson's words in this poem offer severe insights into the psychological torments within the human mind—"Ourself behind Ourself." It's a theme that has been paramount in literature and art ever since: the depths, mysteries, and hidden horrors not of some external phantom, but of our internal self.
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is a film about the war within. It's a deeply psychological, feverish madhouse of a movie that relentlessly pushes its protagonist to the brink of sanity, and forces us to question our own distinctions between things like heroes/villains, real/unreal, and order/chaos.
Based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Shutter follows two fedora-clad U.S. marshals in 1954 New England as they investigate the disappearance of an inmate at a hospital for the criminally insane—a hospital conveniently located on a craggy, mysterious island cut off from the mainland.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead investigator (and the film's focal point), Teddy Daniels, who has his own secrets, demons, and delusions that become more and more evident the longer he stays on Shutter Island. As he and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) go about uncovering the secrets of the island, they encounter a motley crew of bizarre/creepy/insane characters, including a duo of the hospital's top physicians (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow at their malevolent best), lots of disturbingly off-kilter mental patients, and a smattering of guards, orderlies, and hospital administrators. It doesn't take long for things to really get crazy, and for Teddy to realize two things: 1) He has no friends on the island, and 2) No one is going to let him leave.
"Shutter Island" is an appropriate name for the place. It's closed off. Patients are locked in. Once you get there, you don't leave. And so what starts as a simple investigation for Teddy ultimately turns into a desperate attempt to get off the island before he loses his mind—or worse.
With Shutter Island, Scorsese takes a leap into an unfamiliar genre—vintage film noir—though it's not altogether a departure from his larger oeuvre. As a filmmaker, he is first and foremost an interpreter of America. That is, the gritty, violent, darker-than-we-seem nation still trying to reconcile its religious commitment to order and its baser, instinctual urges to dominate and "take what's ours." His films—particularly Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed—can be seen as statements about unresolved American tensions and anxieties (particularly through the eyes of men), and the noir explorations in Shutter Island fit squarely into this theme.
Film noir has come to be known as one of the most distinct and "wholly American" film styles that grew out of a specific reflection of post-war American culture. The genre developed in the 1940s and 50s and featured expressionistic lighting, urban settings (often wet city streets at night), influence from hard-boiled detective fiction (James Cain, Raymond Chandler), depraved anti-heroes, moral ambiguity, fear of sexuality/women, and a pervasive feeling of dread/fate/alienation. Each of these qualities speaks to the preoccupations and anxiety of post-war America, and each is present in spades in Shutter Island.