Friday, March 4, 2011

Are 'The Wicker Man' and 'Shutter Island' Distant Relatives?

It really dawned on me during the opening minutes of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island how much the film's plot resembles that of Robin Hardy's British horror classic, The Wicker Man (1973). Both lead characters, U.S Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) are called out to a mysterious island to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a missing female. Howie, a Christian policeman with strict adherence to British law, goes alone, while Daniels is accompanied by his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Shutter Island has many sudden twists and turns and the order of events that the film originally adopts becomes long forgotten in the latter half, as the film becomes increasingly more complex and ambitious. For a first-time viewer, the original set-up is strikingly similar. Your awareness of the connection between the two depends on which character you follow through Shutter Island, and how much you already know about the film. 

The Wicker Man is not only one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films, period. Sergeant Howie receives an urgent call about a missing young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has vanished from the Heathen populated Island of Summerisle without a trace. He travels to the island by seaplane, and is brought to the shore in the dingy supplied by the harbourmaster. Seemingly puzzled by his arrival, he and the welcoming party of elderly gentlemen at the dock offer no cooperation and fail to recognize the missing girl when shown the photograph sent with the request. Later inquiries with other members of the community, draw resentment and unrest and lead to unanimous insistence that the girl is already dead. Not easily deterred, and convinced that the Island holds some sinister secrets, especially after he finds out about their Pagan religious influences, he becomes obsessed with finding the girl, and makes it his agenda to search the entire island. Despite finding the missing girl or not, he intends to report the nature of their religious cult to the mainland. Little does Sergeant Howie realize that every movement on the island he makes is being carefully controlled by the locals, who may wish to keep him around to feature amongst their annual May Day festivities.

The opening sequence of Shutter Island introduces the characters of Daniels and Aule, revealing that they had never met one another prior to their assignment to this case and the ferry transporting them is fast approaching Shutter Island, the site of a mental asylum for the criminally insane. They are there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a woman convicted of murdering her three children, who had escaped the asylum through her locked cell sometime during the night. When they arrive on the island they are met by an impatient, patronizing and on-edge unit of guards that drive them from the ferry dock to the gates of the facility, and outline the protocol that must be obeyed during their investigation. When they begin their questioning, they receive even less co-operation from the orderlies, and the chief psychiatrist, Dr John Cawley (Ben Kingsley). We discover that Daniels had previously investigated Ashcliffe and had uncovered a potential conspiracy involving unlawful treatment of difficult patients. We also learn that Daniels’ wife had been killed years previous in a house fire started by an Andrew Laeddus, still believed to be a current patient at the asylum. Daniels had volunteered for this mission, with a personal agenda beyond the missing woman. 

The asylum's correctional officers barely assist with a search of the surrounding cliffs, and appear aggravated to be involved. Despite Daniels' request, the are denied access to the private records of the patients and the orderlies, and seemingly misled regarding the practices of the doctors. Rachel Solando's chief psychiatrist, Dr Sheehan, was also mysteriously allowed to leave the island the morning after her escape, proving to be a suspicious inconvenience. From the moment they arrive nothing is as it seems and a spiral of riddles motivates an obsessive hunt for the truth. Daniels shows the same commitment to unraveling the truth about the missing woman as Howie does; a maniacal obsession with either finding the woman or uncovering the sinister practices of Cawley and his staff. A number of observations can be made about the strange behaviors of some of the characters. Why do some of the characters seem amused by Daniels' presence on the island, and even recognize him at times? Why does Chuck seem to hang back and observe and allow Daniels' to be the sole voice of the investigation?

Eventually, Daniels seems to become self-aware that he may have been lured to the island for a purpose. Perhaps he is now a target because of his past investigation into Cawley's methods. Unable to leave the island because of a hurricane, he makes it his mission to scour the entire island and uncover as much as possible. Gradually taking a personal toll on Daniels, demons from his past begin to dominate his reality as the environment disintegrates his sanity. The key similarity is that both men are driven blindly by the quest for justice, and are naive to the reality of their situation, which brings about their failure. Both Scorsese and Hardy implement clever techniques that provide hints to the audience that there is another answer to the mystery beyond the perspective of their central protagonists, and a careful viewer will put the pieces together before they do themselves. Both brilliant films in their own right, The Wicker Man an already established classic, and Shutter Island destined to be one, the distinct similarities are quite interesting to dissect.

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