The Shutter Island And Insomnia Film Studies Essay

Modified: 1st Jan 2015
Wordcount: 1692 words

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Shutter Island and Insomnia. Movies such as “Shutter Island” and “Insomnia” both display attributes of neo-noir and classical noir films which contain a great deal of tension and suspense. The detectives in both films are determined to find clues and answers that uncover the truth. In their attempts to uncover the truth, both detectives experience hallucinations and flashbacks from their traumatic past. Each mystery involves an investigator or detective who has the overwhelming desire to uncover the truth. There are often many distractions and misdirections that the detectives must overcome in order to solve the mystery. The misdirections of the cases are frequently caused by false or inaccurate leads, but each detective examines every lead they receive and treat it as being potentially helpful in solving the case. The “Shutter Island” and “Insomnia” films possess distinct similarities and disparate elements in the characterizations, social issues and cinematic effects.

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Film-noir is a movie genre based in the 1940s and 1950s that generally feature characteristics of mystery or crime dramas. The elements of film-noir consist of black and white produced stories that involve violence, crime, femmes fatales and skeptical detectives who seek the truth of a mystery. Neo-noir is classified as a sub-genre of crime and mystery stories which heavily rely on the influence of film-noir movies. “The term neo-noir describes any film coming after the classic noir period that contains noir themes and the noir sensibility” (Conard 2). Neo-noir movies often share a similar resemblance to film-noir genres in regards to the plots, themes, characterization and cinematography.

“Shutter Island” is a psychological thriller based in 1954 that gives the impression of a classic film-noir. Mark Conard states in his book, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, “You know a classic-noir when you see it, with its unusual lighting, tilted camera angles, and its off-center scene compositions” (Connard 1). The detective in “Shutter Island” is Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a federal marshal who travels to the island with his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the escape of patient in the mental institution. As Teddy Daniels further investigates the mystery of the island, he loses control in grasping the real truth as his perceptions are blurred by hallucinations and conspiracy.

As the story unfolds in “Shutter Island”, the viewer is taken on a psychological trip through the cognitive processes of Teddy Daniel’s mind. It is apparent to the main character and the film viewers that there is a secret hiding within this mysterious island. The story provides a solid discernment of Teddy Daniel’s mind as his sense of reality and fantasy is blurred. Throughout the film, Teddy experiences delusions that are derived from his traumatic past as an American soldier fighting Nazis in World War II, and the death of his wife. The exploration of Teddy’s mind provides pure entertainment for the viewer as it is difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality while experiencing everything through Teddy’s eyes. The realism in the mystery of the patient that escaped the island exists on an imaginative state which is exposed by the truth during the end of the film.

The main character in the “Insomnia” movie is Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a veteran LAPD detective whose exhaustion is intensified with exposure to the unfamiliar northern Alaskan landscape where there is constant daylight. Dormer and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), receive the disturbing details in the autopsy of a teenage girl that was murdered in Alaska. The autopsy revealed that the girl was extremely beaten and her hair had been brushed as well as her nails clipped by the murderer after her death. One of the most significant scenes is when Dormer and his partner are investigating the girl’s murder. They begin a foot chase with a suspect after being shot at in the thick fog. Dormer sees a silhouette of a person that looks like they are aiming to shoot so he fires a shot at the person without hesitation. He runs toward the body and realizes that he has shot and killed his own partner because he couldn’t see through the thick fog. This symbolizes the protagonist’s clouded judgment and is the beginning of his slow descent into insanity.

Dormer deliberately lies to the police about what really happened and explains that the girl’s murderer had shot his partner because he is afraid of the consequences. Dormer is dishonest about shooting his partner and goes through great lengths to cover his own tracks instead of having full focus on the murder case he was assigned. The primary suspect of the girl’s murder is novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams) who witnessed the accidental shooting of Dormer’s partner. The well-being of Dormer declines further as he experiences extreme sleep deprivation, hallucinations and flashbacks of accidentally shooting his partner.

The characterizations of the protagonists in “Shutter Island” and “Insomnia” have analogous qualities as they attempt to uncover the truth in each mystery. The protagonists in both films are persistent investigators who are losing their grasp on reality due to traumatic experiences. Dormer and Teddy share mixed emotions including anxiety, guilt and panic. The protagonists in both movies are manipulated psychologically by the antagonists who drive them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do. Dormer and Teddy’s memories and troubles from the past have a significant affect on their attempts of solving the mysteries.

Although there are many similarities in both films, the cultural and social issues in each film are quite different. “Shutter Island” was set in 1954 and deals birth of psychiatry experiments and the traumatic events of World War II. The scene where the camera pans over the American soldiers as they perform an execution of Nazi soldiers in the “Liberation of Dachau” conveys the barbaric nature of World War II. Teddy experiences many flashbacks of these events and the guilt starts wearing on his sanity.

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The social issues in “Insomnia” deal with murder in a community and corruption within the police force. The murder has a drastic impact on the isolated Alaskan town where everyone knows one another. While investigating the murder, many of the officers are faced with the difficult decisions of lying, framing suspects by planting evidence or clearing their own names by destroying evidence. Dormer’s guilt of shooting his partner sends him into severe sleep deprivation where he seems increasingly delusional as the film goes on.

Cinematic effects such as camera shots, lighting and sound design are utilized in both films to convey the pure emotions of the characters in the films. Peter Rainer, a New York Magazine writer, states, “The best thing about Insomnia is that despite director Christopher Nolan’s soft spot for moody-blues obfuscation, he has the good sense to keep his star in practically every shot” ( “Insomnia” made an effort to zoom in on the protagonist’s emotions and at times showed the point of view shots to express the sleep deprivations and hallucinations from the eyes of the main character. There was high contrast lighting used in setting the mood in the Insomnia film. Even though a lot of this movie was shot outside in the constant daylight setting of Alaska, low-key lighting such as heavy fog and silhouettes were used to symbolize the level of clarity in Dormer’s mind as he continues to lose sleep. The sound design used in Insomnia was used to create tension and suspense in the film.

The cinematic effects and setting used in “Shutter Island”enhance the symbolism and themes in the film. Similar to the “Insomnia” film’s camera shots, “Shutter Island” also uses the zoom-in camera effect to display the emotions and thoughts of Teddy. When Teddy is experiencing hallucinations of the past, the camera shots and lighting flash to indicate that he is dreaming or seeing flashbacks. Lisa Kennedy, a film critic from The Denver Post states, “What is real? What is delusion? What is montrous? What is decent? Shutter Island may not shatter the heart but these are gnawing achievements for a movie about madness and paranoia” ( Fire was used as a key lighting to symbolize Teddy’s insanity in the film. Fire is the symbol of Teddy’s imagination, while water is used to symbolize the true reality of his past. The sound design of “Shutter Island” correlates with the intense instrumental music to portray the suspense as used in many film-noir genres. explains noir sound design on their website, “The sound of noir-plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots” (Parralax View website).

The “Shutter Island” and “Insomnia” films display similarities and differences in the characterizations, social issues and cinematic effects. The protagonists in both films are determined to find clues and answers that uncover the truth. Both detectives experience hallucinations and flashbacks from their traumatic past in their attempts to investigate the truth. There are often many diversions that the detectives must overcome in order to solve the mystery. The cultural and social issues in each film were contrasting even though there are many similarities in both films. Cinematography was successfully utilized in each film with camera shots, lighting and sound design to display the pure emotions of the characters in the films.


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