Movie Review: Shutter Island

by Eric Melin on February 19, 2010

in Print Reviews

You know the kind of thriller that works only at surface value, skirts cliché at every turn, keeps stringing you along, and—in the end—hinges 100 percent on whether you buy the twist ending or not?
“Shutter Island” is not that kind of thriller.

Directed by Martin Scorsese, “Shutter Island” has enough gothic atmosphere, deep emotional scar tissue, and surreal reality-shifting to be anything but a plot-driven thriller. The film feels like a straight up gothic horror picture; a sort of highbrow-yet-grotesque modern-day Val Lewton B-movie.

shutter island dicaprio 2010Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to a mysterious, island-bound mental hospital for the criminally insane to find a murderous inmate who has vanished into thin air. Teddy has problems of his own, we soon learn, since he suffers from hallucinations of his wife’s death at the hands of an arsonist and crippling flashbacks to his time as a World War II vet, where he witnessed the Nazi war camp atrocities at Dachau.

As I stated before, all is not plot-driven in “Shutter Island,” adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from the Dennis Lehane novel. There are layers and layers of depth underneath what is essentially a garden-variety thriller storyline.

The ominous asylum and impending hurricane on the island reflect the deteriorating mental state of the film’s main character, while Teddy’s new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) serves as a sounding board for his increasingly paranoid thoughts. The interesting thing is, everything we see onscreen seems to reaffirm Teddy’s wildest accusations.

Like the last two Scorsese films he starred in (“The Aviator,” “The Departed”) DiCaprio is a walking bundle of nerves, eventually frazzled to the limit. Yet as surreal and obtuse as his situation gets, DiCaprio grounds Teddy in something real—a difficult task considering the stakes for his character.

dicaprio williams shutter island 2010Thrillers invariably go off the rails when things start happening that are far too convenient. However, in this film, those moments beg for reconsideration. “Shutter Island” is in the hands of Scorsese and so many other master craftsmen that it’s a kind of nonstop sordid cinematic bliss—albeit one that’s constantly on the verge of sinking into the choppy ocean that threatens its shores.

The absurdist sequences are some of the movie’s best, as Scorsese uses non-matching cuts and subtle CGI effects to completely disorient the viewer. Robert Richardson’s color-rich cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s elaborate production design further sell the madhouse concept both in and out of Teddy’s mind.

A patched together score by Robbie Robertson of various bombastic modern classical pieces from the likes of Ingram Marshall, John Cage, and Krzysztof Penderecki (whose music filled “The Shining”) go a long way towards setting the eerie mood.

shutter island dicaprio 2010Alas, there is a twist. But can it really be considered a twist if you can see it coming in the first reel? It’s almost as if the big reveal is actually a foregone conclusion and Scorsese knows it. When it finally comes, it allows you to catch your breath. It feels real. It makes sense because you knew it deep down all along.

Rather than play up any preconceived shock value inherent to the script, the ending plays like a grand tragedy. Then Scorsese gives the audience plenty of time for it to sink in as he plays out the underlying emotional truth of the whole sordid affair.

People who enjoy the guessing game of twisty thrillers and have no patience for deep psychological studies might be pissed off and alienated by “Shutter Island.” I like my horror movies to be full of dread and foreboding. This film has more of that in its opening scene than can be found in all of the generic “scares” of last weekend’s “The Wolfman.”

I’ve seen “Shutter Island” only once, but my first impression is that it will only deepen upon further viewings. That’s something you can’t say about the movies that pass for mainstream thriller fare these days.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nathan February 19, 2010 at 9:41 am

1) Good to hear Eric. I’ve been pumped for this movie for a long while and can’t wait to check it out this weekend.

2) THE SITE WORKS! YEAAAAHHH!!!!

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2 Nathan February 19, 2010 at 9:41 am

1) Good to hear Eric. I’ve been pumped for this movie for a long while and can’t wait to check it out this weekend.

2) THE SITE WORKS! YEAAAAHHH!!!!

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3 Xavier February 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

Loved it, cinematography was really good, and I loved the dream sequence with his wife, the ash falling and her in embers. Scorsese is still the master.

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4 Xavier February 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

Loved it, cinematography was really good, and I loved the dream sequence with his wife, the ash falling and her in embers. Scorsese is still the master.

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5 Whitney February 20, 2010 at 8:51 am

Eric… I thought this movie wasn’t great… and I have “patience for deep psychological studies.” My friend Laura called it “Suck Island,” which may be overdoing it, but isn’t far off. More like “Super Disappointing Island.”

That is all.

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6 Whitney February 20, 2010 at 8:51 am

Eric… I thought this movie wasn’t great… and I have “patience for deep psychological studies.” My friend Laura called it “Suck Island,” which may be overdoing it, but isn’t far off. More like “Super Disappointing Island.”

That is all.

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7 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 11:22 am

Yeah, seems it’s pretty polarizing, all right. I was extremely disappointed.

Mostly in the writing and plot itself. Just so amateurish. The dream sequences, the hallucinations (wait, I get it, this must be a dream! Oh wait, is this a hallucination or something he’s really seeing and hearing?) Old, cheap, cliched techniques. Nothing new about it.

Scorsese only rarely interests me, and I was hoping for something to raise the bar for him (with me). What I got was one of M. Night Shamalayan’s better attempts.

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8 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 11:22 am

Yeah, seems it’s pretty polarizing, all right. I was extremely disappointed.

Mostly in the writing and plot itself. Just so amateurish. The dream sequences, the hallucinations (wait, I get it, this must be a dream! Oh wait, is this a hallucination or something he’s really seeing and hearing?) Old, cheap, cliched techniques. Nothing new about it.

Scorsese only rarely interests me, and I was hoping for something to raise the bar for him (with me). What I got was one of M. Night Shamalayan’s better attempts.

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9 Eric Melin February 22, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I think its the atmosphere and character stuff that I really liked. I loved how he turned the audience INTO the unreliable narrator. Identifying with DiCaprio’s character towards the end and him having the realization that he did filled me with an extreme sadness. Admittedly, the plot histrionics were not the film’s strong points, but this was a FAR cry from Shamalayan, who more often than not uses plot to create empty tension.

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10 Eric Melin February 22, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I think its the atmosphere and character stuff that I really liked. I loved how he turned the audience INTO the unreliable narrator. Identifying with DiCaprio’s character towards the end and him having the realization that he did filled me with an extreme sadness. Admittedly, the plot histrionics were not the film’s strong points, but this was a FAR cry from Shamalayan, who more often than not uses plot to create empty tension.

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11 Aaron Weber February 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

You’re all insane. This movie is obviously a blatant rip-off of The Babysitter’s Club Movie IV: The Case of the Barking Tractor.

Scorsese should be ashamed of himself.

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12 Aaron Weber February 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

You’re all insane. This movie is obviously a blatant rip-off of The Babysitter’s Club Movie IV: The Case of the Barking Tractor.

Scorsese should be ashamed of himself.

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13 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I guess I just never bought into Leo as a sympathetic character–any investment I was supposed to have in him as a “human being with severe emotional issues” at that point seemed to be merely one aspect of a litany of new plot points we were supposed to consider.

It’s as if it was Scorsese himself, not Ben Kingsley, at the dry erase board with his pointer, revealing to us all at once the things we are suddenly supposed to be considering as an audience, one of which is “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is someone you should feel sorry for right now.” I dunno, maybe that’s not the best way to look at it, but I was just overwhelmed with what Scorsese was trying his darnedest to get me to think and feel. And he was trying too hard–to me it all felt very forced, I guess you could say, and not the seemingly-effortless work from a guy of Scorsese’s caliber.

I don’t see how Scorsese “turned the audience into the unreliable narrarator”…how what you’re implying is any different than one of the other countless movies in which the “sane person visiting an insane asylum” turns out to actually have been an inmate in the insane asylum all along.

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14 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I guess I just never bought into Leo as a sympathetic character–any investment I was supposed to have in him as a “human being with severe emotional issues” at that point seemed to be merely one aspect of a litany of new plot points we were supposed to consider.

It’s as if it was Scorsese himself, not Ben Kingsley, at the dry erase board with his pointer, revealing to us all at once the things we are suddenly supposed to be considering as an audience, one of which is “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is someone you should feel sorry for right now.” I dunno, maybe that’s not the best way to look at it, but I was just overwhelmed with what Scorsese was trying his darnedest to get me to think and feel. And he was trying too hard–to me it all felt very forced, I guess you could say, and not the seemingly-effortless work from a guy of Scorsese’s caliber.

I don’t see how Scorsese “turned the audience into the unreliable narrarator”…how what you’re implying is any different than one of the other countless movies in which the “sane person visiting an insane asylum” turns out to actually have been an inmate in the insane asylum all along.

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15 Alan Rapp February 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm

That was an AWESWOME movie. Too bad the series went downhill right after with The Babysitter’s Club V: Revenge of Bell-Bottom Betty

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16 Alan Rapp February 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm

That was an AWESWOME movie. Too bad the series went downhill right after with The Babysitter’s Club V: Revenge of Bell-Bottom Betty

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17 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Also, the dramatic and suspenseful orchestral swell as they were first nearing the gate, and then actually going through the gate, was to me pretty silly…as if Scorsese was trying out some Lynchian technique and just failing miserably.

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18 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Also, the dramatic and suspenseful orchestral swell as they were first nearing the gate, and then actually going through the gate, was to me pretty silly…as if Scorsese was trying out some Lynchian technique and just failing miserably.

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19 Eric Melin February 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I identified with him from the beginning, and while I’ll agree with the idea that Kingsley explaining the plot on the chalkboard was too literal (like A.O. Scott suggested this weekend on At the Movies), I adored the way Scorsese brought the audience into DiCaprio’s head. We were, in essence, the unreliable narrators too because we were constantly thinking “this is too convenient” throughout the film. I bought into the over-the-top theatricality of it and was surprised how moved I was by the end.

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20 Eric Melin February 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I identified with him from the beginning, and while I’ll agree with the idea that Kingsley explaining the plot on the chalkboard was too literal (like A.O. Scott suggested this weekend on At the Movies), I adored the way Scorsese brought the audience into DiCaprio’s head. We were, in essence, the unreliable narrators too because we were constantly thinking “this is too convenient” throughout the film. I bought into the over-the-top theatricality of it and was surprised how moved I was by the end.

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21 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Ahh, I see. The over-the-top-ness of it all was either a) lost on me, or b) something I didn’t think was effective.

I thought the first 45 minutes or so were fantastic, and was supremely disappointed by the route it took from there. Bad taste in my mouth after I figured out that “Oh, it’s going to be one of THOSE movies.”

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22 Shelby February 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Ahh, I see. The over-the-top-ness of it all was either a) lost on me, or b) something I didn’t think was effective.

I thought the first 45 minutes or so were fantastic, and was supremely disappointed by the route it took from there. Bad taste in my mouth after I figured out that “Oh, it’s going to be one of THOSE movies.”

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23 MarkZahn March 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm

You guys got it ALL WRONG…

He WAS NOT INSANE, they drugged him with the cigarettes with the hallucinagens so he would have the hallucinations. He was Teddy Daniels as his partner at the very end mistakenly called him Ted as he walked off the porch, they were after him because he was onto the government having his wife murdered.

You guys bought the dupe and didn’t see this was about the government framing an innocent man because he was going to expose the government, the whole message of the movie is the mental health field is corrupt and sinister.

AGAIN – for those of you that missed it:

1) his cigarettes were stolen so the drugged cigarettes could be given to him to get him to start seeing the halucinations, by his partner and his partner went cajoled the theft as being legit thus it wasn’t made up in his mind, “government employess will rob you blind” were his words.

2) After they assigned him his mental health scenario of being delusional and making up the name and character Teddy Daniels, his partner called him Ted as he walked off the porch after he asked him “so what’s the plan boss?”, he WAS NOT MENTALLY ILL WAS NOT DELUSIONAL, what is shown in the movie is the way the government disposes of discoverers of their evils – they use the mental health industry.

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24 MarkZahn March 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm

You guys got it ALL WRONG…

He WAS NOT INSANE, they drugged him with the cigarettes with the hallucinagens so he would have the hallucinations. He was Teddy Daniels as his partner at the very end mistakenly called him Ted as he walked off the porch, they were after him because he was onto the government having his wife murdered.

You guys bought the dupe and didn’t see this was about the government framing an innocent man because he was going to expose the government, the whole message of the movie is the mental health field is corrupt and sinister.

AGAIN – for those of you that missed it:

1) his cigarettes were stolen so the drugged cigarettes could be given to him to get him to start seeing the halucinations, by his partner and his partner went cajoled the theft as being legit thus it wasn’t made up in his mind, “government employess will rob you blind” were his words.

2) After they assigned him his mental health scenario of being delusional and making up the name and character Teddy Daniels, his partner called him Ted as he walked off the porch after he asked him “so what’s the plan boss?”, he WAS NOT MENTALLY ILL WAS NOT DELUSIONAL, what is shown in the movie is the way the government disposes of discoverers of their evils – they use the mental health industry.

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25 Eric Melin March 1, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Mark- I wish I could believe you (and I will watch again) but the soul-killing moment at the end only works because Teddy knows what he is and chooses lobotomy anyway. I love your passion, but I don’t think that’s what the film was trying to say. The next time I watch it, however, I will be paying close, close attention to see if your theory holds up!

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26 Eric Melin March 1, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Mark- I wish I could believe you (and I will watch again) but the soul-killing moment at the end only works because Teddy knows what he is and chooses lobotomy anyway. I love your passion, but I don’t think that’s what the film was trying to say. The next time I watch it, however, I will be paying close, close attention to see if your theory holds up!

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27 Steve March 4, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Shutter Island is not one of Scorsese’s best. In one of his recent oeuvres, The Departed, he handled things much more skilfully – and there’s a far greater sense of menace and foreboding in that movie than there is in Shutter Island.

Casting Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as psychiatrists was, I think, a mistake. Both are known for putting on fairly transparent renditions of evil psychopaths in other works, and putting them in a movie like Shutter Island basically gives away the whole plot and even the ending, if you’re paying attention. What the movie really needed were a couple of relative unknowns in this role, with unpredictable behavior to match.

Where I think the movie succeeds is in how it absolutely screws with your head for the first 90 minutes or so. In this regard, it’s a good study of what mental illness looks and feels like – from the inside.

Where it fails, however, is in the way it dishes out all the pieces of the puzzle in the last half-hour and essentially assembles them for you in an attempt to keep the running time within the specification set by the producers. In the end, you discover that Teddy Daniels really is nuts, and you find the revelation of his true state is a huge let-down.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of emotional depth. Hitchcock was a master at making people feel intense dread, and even fear – it wasn’t so much what he showed you to make you feel that way, but what he didn’t. In Shutter Island, the sense of evil is muted, and then telegraphed well in advance to remind you that you’re supposed to be feeling something about what you see.

My verdict on Shutter Island is that it’s more carnival funhouse than horror story.

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28 Steve March 4, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Shutter Island is not one of Scorsese’s best. In one of his recent oeuvres, The Departed, he handled things much more skilfully – and there’s a far greater sense of menace and foreboding in that movie than there is in Shutter Island.

Casting Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as psychiatrists was, I think, a mistake. Both are known for putting on fairly transparent renditions of evil psychopaths in other works, and putting them in a movie like Shutter Island basically gives away the whole plot and even the ending, if you’re paying attention. What the movie really needed were a couple of relative unknowns in this role, with unpredictable behavior to match.

Where I think the movie succeeds is in how it absolutely screws with your head for the first 90 minutes or so. In this regard, it’s a good study of what mental illness looks and feels like – from the inside.

Where it fails, however, is in the way it dishes out all the pieces of the puzzle in the last half-hour and essentially assembles them for you in an attempt to keep the running time within the specification set by the producers. In the end, you discover that Teddy Daniels really is nuts, and you find the revelation of his true state is a huge let-down.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of emotional depth. Hitchcock was a master at making people feel intense dread, and even fear – it wasn’t so much what he showed you to make you feel that way, but what he didn’t. In Shutter Island, the sense of evil is muted, and then telegraphed well in advance to remind you that you’re supposed to be feeling something about what you see.

My verdict on Shutter Island is that it’s more carnival funhouse than horror story.

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29 Rob D March 5, 2010 at 9:27 pm

About halfway or so through the film, when Leo still hasn’t found any serious clues to what he’s “investigating”, you have the thought,”Hey, Maybe he’s the one whose nuts here.” Then you much on your popcorn till the credits roll cause your wife hasnt hap that epiphany and wont leave till it’s over. 3 out of 10 for me.

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30 Rob D March 5, 2010 at 9:27 pm

About halfway or so through the film, when Leo still hasn’t found any serious clues to what he’s “investigating”, you have the thought,”Hey, Maybe he’s the one whose nuts here.” Then you much on your popcorn till the credits roll cause your wife hasnt hap that epiphany and wont leave till it’s over. 3 out of 10 for me.

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31 Bill March 14, 2010 at 12:15 am

I think none of you got this movie. It was in fact two movies rolled into one. Two equally-plausible scenarios. There was no “aha” moment, because the true reality was never revealed. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply can’t deal with the ambiguity and convinced themselves of one reality or the other. I think was a brilliant movie and that those who think otherwise just didn’t get it.

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32 Bill March 14, 2010 at 12:15 am

I think none of you got this movie. It was in fact two movies rolled into one. Two equally-plausible scenarios. There was no “aha” moment, because the true reality was never revealed. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply can’t deal with the ambiguity and convinced themselves of one reality or the other. I think was a brilliant movie and that those who think otherwise just didn’t get it.

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33 Matt S March 14, 2010 at 7:59 am

I know movies a little, and “Lynchian” (commenter above) is not a word and has no place here. The Dachau-Shutter Island connection was pretty strong: transportation, entrance, armed guards, never leaving… but Dachau was eventually liberated, so we think that there could be hope for Leo. Perhaps Brewmeister should have been Austrian, to help out with the psyco narrative.

I felt uncomfortable watching this movie, and it was the director’s intention to create this tension. Many accurately predicted that Leo was insane, but there was a purpose, as stated in this review’s summary statement: “It makes it real”. Nice review.

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34 Matt S March 14, 2010 at 7:59 am

I know movies a little, and “Lynchian” (commenter above) is not a word and has no place here. The Dachau-Shutter Island connection was pretty strong: transportation, entrance, armed guards, never leaving… but Dachau was eventually liberated, so we think that there could be hope for Leo. Perhaps Brewmeister should have been Austrian, to help out with the psyco narrative.

I felt uncomfortable watching this movie, and it was the director’s intention to create this tension. Many accurately predicted that Leo was insane, but there was a purpose, as stated in this review’s summary statement: “It makes it real”. Nice review.

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35 englander March 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I agree with review #16 by Bill. Nothing in the first or second stories invalidated the other. It was not like the Sixth Sense with a grand reveal. He got lobotomized at the end and you did not get to know if he was good man or monster.

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36 englander March 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I agree with review #16 by Bill. Nothing in the first or second stories invalidated the other. It was not like the Sixth Sense with a grand reveal. He got lobotomized at the end and you did not get to know if he was good man or monster.

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37 Emily July 19, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I really liked this movie. And even if you didn’t like it, you can’t argue that the flashback Teddy has with Dolores in their old apartment when she turns to ash is one hell of a moving scene. It’s so touching, especially when you watch is a second time and you see all the symbolism and why certain things happened.

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38 Emily July 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm

And another thing that makes me wonder: in the end when he seems to have relapsed and is taken away for a lobotomy… did he really relapse??

a. he goes off too willingly with the orderlys. It almost seems like he is lucid and understands where he is going.

b. his doctor calls out the name \Teddy\, and Andrew doesn’t respond, perhaps because he realizes that is not his name, nor his self.

c. he may have learned the true reality and decided it was too painful to life with, he may have wanted lobotomized to forget what happened. If he never remembers what he did he \dies a good man\

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39 Eric Melin July 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Emily- You hit on something there when you called the Dolores moment “one hell of a moving scene.” It’s pretty crazy when a film that may have some sort of internal but impenetrable logic can still move you. That’s when you can tell you’re in the hands of a master like Scorsese.

I also agree with the points you mentioned about the end. I recently read the last 3 or 4 pages of the book at the grocery store (I just HAD to!), and from a cursory glance, Lehane seemed to suggest nothing of the sort–that he was not aware and just went back to living the lie. Something in this filmic version made me think he was aware and chose lobotomy, which is even more tragic.

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40 sazzzzo August 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

whats the song in this scene where the wife is holding alcohol?

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