The inmates are running the asylum, and an outsider has come knocking.
These are films of doubt, pretence, perception of reality, questions of the mind, and where exactly one draws the line between the sane and the insane. It’s harder to draw comparisons between these two films than it is with others I’ve pitched against one another, as they address two very different perspectives on the insane – one archaic, one a little more modern – and there’s one that very clearly succeeded in impressing the public where the other faded almost instantly vanished into obscurity.
Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese brings the novel by Dennis Lehane to the screen in yet more proof that the Academy doesn’t care how good an actor Leonardo DiCaprio is. 1954, an investigation into a missing inmate drags a US Marshal into a conspiracy of hidden truths, all the while his partner tries to keep him on the straight and narrow, driving his partner to talk about the arsonist who killed his family, a man who is apparently a patient on the island as well. The plot runs thick as the Marshal finds a woman hiding in a cliff-side cave on the island who tells him that the Asylum is being run as a testing facility for mind control methods.
DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are simply as excellent as ever and Martin Scorsese directs a typically clean cut and cinematically brilliant piece that should have landed more awards than it received. It’s a film that benefits greatly from a second watch as the truth makes details that pass unnoticed on watch one, shine plainly on watch two once the grand twist has been revealed, and concludes on a question better left unanswered. Even more incredible on second watch the story reverses, from following one sane man going mad, to a mad man finding sanity.
Not a lot more to be said without giving the whole game away, moving on.
Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
From the director of the Machinist, Brad Anderson, a tale loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short. A few days before the dawning of a new century, a fresh faced young doctor appears at the gates of a remote asylum where the staff seem almost as strange as the patients. Nothing seems right, in fact a great deal seems to be going wrong, and very quickly we learn that the actual staff are being held prisoner by some of the calmer lunatics while they run Stonehearst their own way.
Let me begin by highlighting the biggest failing of Stonehearst Asylum: the twist is given too early and doubt removed too quickly, and as a result all tension is lost. Well, one of the twists at any rate. With that gone, we are left with an exploration into how madmen can treat one another with greater humanity than so-called doctors. A study in how the mad were tortured towards sanity and treated like monsters, less than beasts in an effort to find the person who presumably lies beneath. It weakens what should be a stunning film, making it merely very good.
Stonehearst can boast a superb cast featuring some of the biggest British names, including Brendan Gleeson as an unnamed character used as part of a framing device, Michael Caine in a supporting role with less screen time than Alfred Pennyworth, and Kate Beckinsale as the second lead, and yet oddly enough the lead himself is a relative unknown, actor/singer/songwriter Jim Sturgess, whose biggest roles thus far were in Cloud Atlas and 21. The whole cast deliver good clean performances of well written characters – demonstrating a variety of mental illnesses – in a complex situation with no right or wrong to cling to, building to a conclusion that can’t be called “happy” but perhaps satisfactory, and one that I at least never saw coming.
First major point of commonality, Ben Kingsley! He’s actually a big part of why I drew these films together and Wikipedia editors have come to the same conclusion as Shutter Island appears under the See Also section citing Kingsley as the reason. In both cases he plays a warden who only seeks the best of care for his patients in cases where such an attitude is unusual, first where those patients are also prisoners, second in a time where mental illness was beaten out, not healed.
It’s from his perspective that I watch these films. One is clearly a better film than the other, but both are worth your time as an analysis of the nature of sanity and how it changes our perception, and indeed how our perception of sanity has changed. If you’re in search of a film that gives you something to really think about and put fresh wrinkles in your brain then I can’t recommend watching either of these films individually, but they compliment each other elegantly. Kind of a starter – main course mix, maybe take season 2 of American Horror Story for dessert.