Shutter Island Discussion

Shutter Island was released in the United States in February of 2010. Directed by the great Martin Scorsese, the film combines critical thought, emotion, and suspense into a shocking story. Oh yes, this means that first time viewers should expect the unexpected.

Let me give you a basic plot overview. In 1954, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on Shutter Island to investigate the case of a missing patient. Shutter Island is an island dedicated to Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution for the criminally insane. One would think that if an investigation was being held on a dangerous patient, the hospital staff would be very hospitable, right? Well, Teddy and Chuck are not given access to anything that will help them break open the case. Everything seems mysterious. Strange events take place, leading Teddy to wonder what his actual purpose of being on the island is. Puzzling clues, people, and thoughts force Teddy to question his own sanity.

The acting in this film is great. The cast is full of veteran actors who know how to display a compelling story. Leo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are joined by Ben Kingsley (Dr. Cawley), Max von Sydow (Dr. Naehring), Michelle Williams (Dolores), and Emily Mortimer (Rachel #1). As mentioned before, the film carries a certain emotion that draws in the audience. Immediately, the audience is connected to Teddy Daniels. He comes to an island where the inhabitants treat him strangely. The vibe is creepy and uncomfortable. The audience wants to see that this character remains safe. Leo DiCaprio does a terrific job of showing the emotions through facial expressions. One can see that he has had something traumatic happen in his life previously. Mark Ruffalo plays Teddy’s new, but friendly partner. The two become friends right off the bat. The audience is led into a false sense of security that Chuck will always support Teddy. Subtle hints, however, lead the audience to sometimes question the partnership. Mark Ruffalo perfectly shows the compassion and friendliness that his character does have. The audience is connected to the friendship.

Ben Kingsley’s performance is one of my favorites. He does a great job of portraying the head of the institution. The audience does not know whether to trust him or not. He is manipulative and forceful, but in a soft way. His right hand man, Dr. Naehring, acts in the same manner. Together, Max von Sydow and Ben Kingsley form a powerful team. Michelle Williams and Emily Mortimer play the most important females within the film. Both give convincing performances that are needed to keep the suspense in the plot.


Okay, you were warned. Let’s talk about the ending of the film.

“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”- Teddy Daniels

This quote basically sums up the entire film, in my opinion. The hospital staff has been carrying out a giant ruse to make Teddy realize that he is indeed Laeddis, the criminal that Teddy is obsessed with finding. Teddy has a created a whole new self image. He thinks he is a U.S. marshal whose wife died in a fire started by Laeddis. In the end, Dr. Cawley spills the truth to Teddy. He is not Teddy. He is Laeddis. Teddy has to make a choice. Does he want to continue on living in the fantasy of Teddy, or does he want to accept the fact that he is Laeddis? To accept the reality would mean he would probably live longer, but he would have to live with the fact that he is the insane Laeddis. Living in his fantasy world would mean immediate death, but he would always believe in the dream that he was a good man. In the end, Teddy chooses to remain as Teddy. This explains the meaning of his last line in the film. He would rather die a good man.

On second viewing, one can see all of the hints that Scorsese leaves for the audience. It is much easier to see that Teddy is being tricked. For example:

Arrival on the Island

When Teddy and Chuck arrive on the island, they are escorted by several guards and officers. When I say several, I mean several. Way too many for this to be a regular escort. The officers seem to be on edge as well. Why would they be so nervous if there were two U.S. marshals right there with them? They are scared and ready just in case Teddy has any sudden outbursts. The officers, Teddy, and Chuck caravan to the main grounds of the hospital. As they are driving, Teddy makes a remark about the wired fences. He says that he has seen something like that before. At first, audiences might think Teddy is referring to his days at Dachau Concentration Camp. Going back, however, one might wonder if he was actually remembering the wired fences because he has spent time at the hospital. Once the cars arrive at the entrance of the hospital, the passengers get out. Teddy and Chuck are asked to turn over their weapons. Teddy objects, Chuck does not. Finally, Teddy agrees to hand over his gun. Chuck struggles to take his gun out of its holster. One would think that an experienced U.S. marshal would be able to take out his gun quickly, right? It is part of the job, after all. Scorsese does this to drop a hint that maybe Chuck is not a real U.S. marshal.

The Meeting With the Staff

In the first half of the film, Teddy and Chuck organized a meeting where they can question the staff of Ashecliffe Hospital. One would think that the staff would be very compliant with the questions asked. They want the escaped patient to be caught, right? Teddy asks several questions that are avoided or vaguely answered. Nobody gives him a straight, informative answer. In fact, the staff acts very rudely towards Teddy. Once the audience knows that Teddy is actually a patient at the hospital, they can understand the hesitant actions of the staff. The staff was in a unusual position. They were used to giving Teddy orders, not him giving them orders. They answer very cautiously, maybe expecting Teddy to act out in a violent manner. Scorsese uses several reaction shots within this scene. The reaction shots are key to seeing the uneasiness of the staff as they are questioned by one of their most dangerous patients. Everyone is not sure how or what to answer to Teddy’s persistent questioning. It’s really interesting (on second viewing) to see everyone’s attitude and treatment towards Teddy. Everyone knows he is a patient, except him.

Peeks of the Truth

Teddy’s fictional story of what happened to his wife states that she died when their apartment was set on fire. However, the audience knows in the end that this is not true. His wife drowned their kids in a lake, and he therefore shot her out of anger. Water and fire play big roles in Shutter Island. Remember in the beginning when Teddy felt seasick on the boat? Water always seems to bother him. These hints that Scorsese uses make sense in the end. Teddy’s uneasiness around and fear of water originates from a traumatic experience in his real life. One last thing is the constant reminder of his daughter. She symbolizes guilt and is a reminder of who Teddy really is. She pops up at the beginning of the film, and it does not make any sense to the viewer. She represents the idea of Teddy’s reality chipping away at his fantasy world.

This film is such an interesting topic. It can be perceived in so many different ways. Scorsese and his team did a great job of creating several layers within the film. It is one of those films where new things pop out during each viewing. What are your thoughts about the film? Comment below 🙂


One comment

  1. Vijay Varman · January 14, 2017

    I absolutely love this film. It had been a long time since I had watched a film where I didn’t see the twist coming, but Shutter Island’s ending really threw me. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

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