You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male protagonist wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (or sporting day-old stubble, at most). Though he’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him morally ambiguous, he is almost always portrayed as the victim of a femme fatale, a woman of highly questionable moral virtue.
Beautiful and duplicitous, the femme fatale ensnares the unwary male protagonist, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonists of Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.
Whether the male protagonist is a widower attempting to find happiness in his new marriage (Rebecca), a private investigator dealing with unscrupulous adventurers (The Maltese Falcon), or a drifter who gets involved in a murder conspiracy (The Postman Always Rings Twice), the male protagonist of Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex.
Neo-Noir pays homage to Noir classics, using “updated themes, content, style, visual elements, or media that were absent in film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.” Shutter Island, a 2010 neo-Noir film by Martin Scorsese, based on the 2003 bestseller by Dennis Lehane, is one of the more fascinatingly complex neo-noir films.
Though lacking the characteristic noir Voice-Over which limits the story to the male protagonist’s perspective, Shutter Island nevertheless keeps the audience focus firmly restricted to the story of US Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). On assignment in 1954 with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is investigating the disappearance of a female inmate of Shutter Island: a psychiatric facility isolated in Boston Harbor and housing the most dangerous of the criminally insane.
On Shutter Island, psychiatrists and nurses, led by the facility’s Director, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), are ostensibly using revolutionary psychotropic drugs and intensive psychotherapy — along with “empathy” — to treat the dangerous inmates.
All of the doctors and staff are extremely uncooperative with the law officers, however, leading Teddy to suspect that something nefarious is happening on the Island, especially at the Lighthouse, which guards refuse to let the Marshals enter.
Haunted by his experiences as a soldier liberating the Nazi concentration camp Dachau,
as well as by the death of his belovèd wife Dolores (Michelle Williams),
Teddy is determined not only to find the missing inmate, Rachel, who disappeared from a locked cell on a locked ward, but to unearth Shutter Island’s sinister — perhaps criminal — secrets.
Ultimately, like all neo-noir protagonists, Teddy becomes “trapped in a difficult situation” and is “forced to make choices out of desperation.”
Suspenseful and gripping, Shutter Island ultimately becomes heartbreaking — even if you think you’ve guessed the ending about halfway through — mostly because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredibly powerful performance as the noble but flawed Teddy.
Rated R for mature subject matter, Shutter Island received mostly positive critical reviews and has become Scorsese’s second-highest grossing film worldwide, earning over $294M. It’s available for rent for $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from YouTube.
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