Is Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ More Than Its Divisive Twist?

by Olivia Hill
Shutter Island

It’s been 10 years since the release of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and hence, 10 years since I was totally enthralled and disturbed by it as a 14-year-old. When I first heard the film’s ominous deep beat of stringed instruments as US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) approach the secluded, eerie Shutter Island, I was instantly unsettled — but hooked.

Reading through rankings of Martin Scorsese’s most notable films, Shutter Island rarely makes it into any top 10 lists. When put alongside the likes of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, The Departed, or 2019’s The Irishman, Shutter Island has failed to make as much of an impact. That being said, to this day, the film is Martin Scorsese’s second highest-grossing film (falling behind The Wolf of Wall Street), raking in a hefty ~$295 million worldwide. So, although the film doesn’t hold up against Scorsese’s other works, what made Shutter Island stand out in 2010? And does it still pack a punch in 2020?

Welcome to Shutter Island

Equipped with a bunch of neo-noir tropes and splashes of horror, Shutter Island is a psychological mystery thriller based on author Dennis Lehane’s (Mystic River) novel of the same name. Set in 1954, we meet a seasick Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Ruffalo), as they drift towards the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. We are informed that the two US Marshals have been called to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando, a woman who ended up at Ashecliffe after drowning her three children. Upon their arrival at Ashecliffe, Teddy and Chuck are led through the hospital grounds by Deputy Warden McPherson (John Caroll Lynch). The two learn that behind the electrified wire and within the dank, prison-like walls, are three buildings, the third being Ward C, an old Civil War fortress which houses the most dangerous patients.

As a ferocious storm approaches, Teddy and Chuck search the grounds for Rachel but discover nothing apart from a guarded lighthouse which is apparently off-limits. Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), the head psychiatrist, refuses to hand over staff and patient records and informs the marshals that Lester Sheehan, Rachel’s doctor, left Shutter Island the previous day. Frustrated by this lack of cooperation, Teddy and Chuck try to gather more information by interviewing the staff and other patients. During one of these interviews, a patient takes Teddy’s notepad and writes ‘RUN’. Although these interactions shed little light on Rachel’s disappearance, Teddy asks each interviewee if they’ve ever heard of a man called Andrew Laeddis. When Chuck questions this, he learns that Teddy’s wife, Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams), was killed in an apartment fire set by arsonist Andrew Laeddis. Teddy shares with Chuck that he believes Laeddis is being held at Ashecliffe and this is partly why he took on the case.

Shortly after arriving on the island, Teddy’s physical and mental health starts to deteriorate. Dr. Cawley gives him aspirin for his intense migraines and hand tremors, but he is plagued with traumatic dreams and hallucinations. Visions of his deceased wife become more and more frequent, and her cryptic messages about Rachel and Laeddis drive Teddy into a frenzy to uncover the truth. Being at Ashecliffe also triggers flashbacks of his time spent at Dachau concentration camp during the liberation as a WWII soldier, which results in some pretty disturbing scenes.

Chaos ensues during the wake of the storm and Teddy takes this opportunity to investigate Ward C in search of Andrew Laeddis. There’s no sign of Laeddis, but he talks to George Noyce, a man in solitary confinement with a badly beaten face who blames Teddy for his injuries. He also claims that experiments on patients at Ashecliffe regularly take place and Laeddis has been taken to the lighthouse for a lobotomy.

When Teddy returns from his visit to Ward C, he is informed that Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has been found. But now more focused on the possible corruption within Ashecliffe and keen to find Laeddis at the lighthouse, despite protests from Chuck, Teddy attempts to scale the island’s cliffs to reach the lighthouse. On his way there, he discovers a woman who claims to be the ‘real’ Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson) hiding in a cave. She explains that she was once a psychiatrist at Ashecliffe but was admitted as a patient when she threatened to reveal the mind control techniques and experiments that were taking place at the hospital.

Determined to find Chuck and escape, Teddy returns to the hospital. But upon his arrival, Dr. Cawley tells him that he came to the island alone and he has never heard of a Chuck Aule. Certain that Chuck is being held in the lighthouse, Teddy assaults a guard, steals his gun and storms the building. But instead of finding Chuck or Laeddis, Teddy discovers Dr. Cawley waiting for him, who then reveals the truth…

Teddy Daniels is Andrew Laeddis. Sent to Ashecliffe two years previously, Andrew is incarcerated for murdering his wife Dolores after he discovered she had drowned their three children during a manic-depressive episode. Labeled as the hospital’s most dangerous patient, Dr. Cawley explains that Andrew had created Edward Daniels and Rachel Solando (anagrams for Andrew Laeddis and Dolores Chanal) as a fantasy to escape the reality of what had happened. In an attempt to help Andrew come to terms with reality, he was allowed to play out this fantasy over the last few days and reveals that this technique had been successful once before. Chuck enters, who is in fact psychiatrist Dr. Sheehan and confirms Dr. Cawley’s explanation. The original Rachel Solando was played by a member of staff, and the Solando he spoke to in the cave was just one of his hallucinations. Andrew is warned that if he regresses once again, he will be lobotomized.

Accepting his true identity, Andrew Laeddis is reintroduced into the hospital as a patient. But as he sits outside with Dr. Sheehan, he goes back to calling him Chuck and is slowly led to the lighthouse to be lobotomized.

The Twist

Shutter Island is defined by its twist. When discussing the movie with others, you will find yourself in one of two groups — those you expected the twist and found it painfully obvious, or, those who were completed dumbfounded. I am perfectly willing to admit, at age 14, I was in the latter group. Yet, it is impossible to know how I would have understood the story watching it for the first time now as an adult.

If you didn’t guess the twist, Shutter Island provides two totally different viewing experiences and perfectly displays the importance of perspective. The first time around, we are seeing the film unfold through Teddy’s point of view and will most likely become wrapped up in the investigation as there are so many unanswered questions. Where is Rachel Solando? How did she escape? Where is Andrew Laeddis? What’s really going on at Ashecliffe? Will Teddy and Chuck be trapped on the island?

When focused on all of these separate mysteries, it’s easy to miss the finer details. That’s why a second watch is necessary for those of us who aren’t so perceptive. Noticing the numerous clues you may have missed might make you feel a little silly, but it highlights how well we have been persuaded to sympathize and trust Teddy, even though the truth is handed to us multiple times. Teddy is a WWII veteran, he lost his wife in a terrible fire, he is a damaged man, yet he is determined to uncover the barbaric practices taking place at Ashecliffe. Teddy is a good guy, right?

Once the twist has been revealed and you are no longer blinded by the idea that Teddy must be a hero, the number of signs we are given which point to the truth is quite incredible. Here’s just a small list:

  • Chuck fumbles with his gun when handing it over to the warden which is a clear sign that he is not a US Marshal
  • The guards are overly cautious when Teddy arrives on the island since he is actually the hospital’s ‘most dangerous patient’
  • The staff and guards seem lazy and uninterested during the search for Rachel Solando — why should they care when no one is actually missing?
  • The patients seem nervous around Teddy and become uncomfortable when he mentions Andrew Laeddis
  • Teddy has a fear of water which relates to the drowning of his three children. He is terribly seasick at the beginning and when a patient is drinking a glass of water, he doesn’t actually see the glass until it is empty
  • The constant migraines and hallucinations
  • George Noyce says it is Teddy who beat up his face

Plot Holes Aplenty

Some may argue that the twist is the film’s most significant problem. But even if you were satisfied with the twist like me, when reflecting on the story, there are a fair few gaping plot holes which are pretty hard to ignore.

Teddy/Andrew is described as Ashecliffe’s ‘most dangerous patient’, which is a difficult pill to swallow given the fact he has been allowed to have the run of the place for several days. There are periods when he is completely unsupervised, therefore putting the other patients and staff at risk. Why is this experimental role play more important than the safety of everyone else?

There is also little explanation as to why the doctors think this experimental role play will actually do any good. At the end of the film, Dr. Cawley explains that they let Andrew live out this fantasy once before and although it worked initially, he soon regressed. Considering this, why did they think repeating it would help? Surely accommodating Andrew’s fantasy for short periods is only going to cause him to deteriorate further.

Lastly, it does seem a little far-fetched that the staff managed to orchestrate the experiment without someone letting Teddy’s true identity slip. Apart from Teddy’s interaction with George Noyce, the other patients seem to be oddly experienced actors.

The Good

Nit-picking aside, Shutter Island is memorable for a reason, and that’s not just because of the controversial twist. Despite the differences in genre and style compared to his other films, let’s not forget that Martin Scorsese was behind this movie. When you examine the intricate details of how certain shots and sequences have been structured, his flair for filmmaking shines through.

Some of the decisions made concerning the order of shots and how we as the audience are shown the story are subtle, yet so effective. Scorsese is known for using freeze frames in his movies and in Shutter Island, there is just one, but what it communicates is important. The freeze-frame is a shot of a happy Teddy and his wife smiling at him during a flashback. Although this may seem simple, it marks the significance of this moment for Teddy. Everything that happens to him and what he is going through comes down to the loss of his wife and the guilt that surrounds this. There is also a clever shot where a patient is drinking a glass of water, but through Teddy’s perspective, because of his fear of water, he can’t see the glass until it is empty. When the film first came out, many thought this was a continuity error, but almost everything in this film has meaning.

The cinematography (Robert Richardson) and imagery used across the course of the film is also memorable. Teddy’s dream sequences and hallucinations are well-executed and cleverly incorporate fire and water, elements that are significant to Teddy. The dismal setting of Ashecliffe is intensified by the presence of the destructive storm, which also cleverly reflects the chaotic state of Teddy’s mind. There are some swinging camera shots during conversations that are a little disorientating, yet, again, this is almost definitely done on purpose to represent Teddy’s increasing confusion.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives an excellent performance throughout and considering he is in almost every scene, he does a fantastic job of keeping the audience engaged. DiCaprio successfully makes the audience sympathize with him from the get-go, even though he is clearly delusional and has a mysterious history. Teddy’s physical and mental deterioration required a deeply physical performance from DiCaprio, and he portrayed this very well.

The Verdict

Since Shutter Island was released in 2010, it has divided audiences. While its famous twist was received with delight by some, others thought it was obvious, tacky and lazy. The presence of some fairly blinding plot holes also damaged the film’s enjoyment factor for some viewers. But personally, none of this bothers me. It feels as though Scorsese had fun with this movie and that definitely shows. Shutter Island is loud, dramatic and bold, yet it still manages to adopt subtlety in the right places. I felt like I was on a ride the first time I watched this movie (don’t worry Martin, not the Marvel fairground type). Although I will never have quite that same experience again, 10 years later, I’m still up for the journey.

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Keri Elaine February 29, 2020 - 1:55 pm

Shutter Island is one of my favorite films and I referenced it and Sucker Punch in a paper about Charlotte Perkins The Yellow Wallpaper. I did not see the twist at first, but I did think the gun scene and the way the psych ward people acted was odd. That made me realize there is more to the story.
Keri Elaine

The Animation Commendation February 29, 2020 - 12:38 pm

I sadly knew the twist before seeing the film.

Colin Newton February 22, 2020 - 1:03 pm

I only saw this once, and while I wasn’t head over heels, I can see it as an exercise in style. It’s really only 10 years old? It feels so “classic” I thought it was a little older than that… Maybe I should watch it again.

My own relationship to the twist is as follows. A few years ago, I was sitting in a college classroom when I overheard another student say, “Man, that ‘Shutter Island,’ how do they think of twists like that?” I thought to myself, “I sure hope the twist isn’t…” I was right, of course, so I have no one to blame for spoiling the ending but myself.

Nick Kush February 20, 2020 - 6:04 pm

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