Explainers

‘Shutter Island’, Explained

Updated February 18, 2017
15 min read

Shutter Island. Martin Scorsese has directed more than 20 feature films in a career spanning 50 years. He has been the most influential English language filmmaker after the great Stanley Kubrick, with his movies not only setting benchmarks in distinctive aspects but also leading Hollywood on a path it never dared to tread on. Like a potter and cinema his piece, he has added ingredients and sublimely shaped them to create his own universally accepted brand of film making.

With the ferocious Silician blood running through him, Scorsese has in the process destroyed the fragile pots that could not stand the test of time, the conventionalities and constraints of mainstream cinema. His work before and after the beginning of the millennium has been highly contrasting, with his subject matter switching to tones that appeal to a wider audience, a more mainstream approach technically. ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘The Departed’ maybe exceptions, but they have his older themes imbibed in them as a resultant of the primary motives. They never take the center stage and exist only to remind you it’s not a hillbilly ride. Scorsese has lately been shuffling between genres, from ‘Aviator’ (biopic) to ‘Hugo’ (fantasy) or ‘Shutter Island’ (psychological thriller) to ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ (dark comedy), he’s lent every feature his remarkable finesse with some pretty detailing.

The plot, in short

One movie that reserved a tranquil space in my mind is ‘Shutter Island’. Shutter Island frankly was the first movie that made me question my thinking and judgement, and consider the medium of films seriously. It was released the same year as ‘Inception’, with Nolan’s mindbender receiving a mile wider acclaim despite its narrative and structural flaws that irked me a lot on the second watch. Shutter Island is conventional with its linear narrative. It is set in the 50s and stays true to the film noir style of building a mystery; with a curious lead detective shrouded in his own mystery unveiling simultaneously with the plot, frequent flashbacks that disrupt narrative flow, lingering presence of a femme fatale, supporting characters that are embedded with curiosity rather than solutions, tragic universal event preceding the plot that lends a dark or glum ambience (The WW2 in this case) and the use of minimal lighting to create a sort of chiaroscuro (highly contrasting shades with the background sealed in dark that shifts a lot of focus towards the central character). This is mostly because of Scorsese’s confessed love for traditional noir, and he gives a fitting tribute to a genre that is parodied more than its idolized.

*SPOILER ALERT* Pardon me, because the whole movie is filled with symbolism and it is just human to miss out on some of them. To tell you the truth, the visual imagery’s an achievement here and its meaning would differ with change in perspective.

The plot, in detail

Starting with the first scene where we are introduced to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is suffering from a bout of sea-sickness and complains about water. Notice how we are given no background whatsoever and are straight up brought to this scene, signifying the character’s weakness, a very odd beginning to create a doubt in the viewers’ minds about the robustness of the lead we want to get affiliated with. A few moments later, we and the lead meet Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) whose background and motive is summed up in a couple of sentences, conveying Teddy’s concentration sacrificed for his eagerness to reach the island. The film does a brilliant job in involving you and your eyes are Teddy’s eyes, and this is exactly how Scorsese keeps you distracted from the symbolic hints right in front of you. We reach the island and are taken to the penitentiary through a montage of abruptly cut fast paced shots. There is no delaying to invoke suspense because it wouldn’t mean anything at this stage owing to our lack of knowledge of the events and it abides by our shared eagerness to thrust the shovel into the ground.

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There’s a particular scene where Teddy questions the stiffness of the guards, but has no idea about the presence of a monster in extremely close proximity to him. There’s a very unsettling scene thrown at us with a scrawny balding woman with a cut on her throat gesturing silence followed by a smile that raises a question : Does a mentally unhealthy woman know more than us or is this a gimmick to welcome us into Scorsese’s haven of horror. Fast forward a few scenes, we meet Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and he feeds us details about the missing patient, Rachel Solando. He drops bombshells all around us while describing the crimes Rachel had committed, and Teddy is visibly astounded by this. The treatment requires Dr. Cawley to get through Teddy’s subconscious by reminding him of the reality by mentioning keywords in normal sentences. Consequently, there are dreams and hallucinations of Teddy’s wife Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams) who we are made to believe was killed in a fire initiated by Andrew Laeddis, who’s on the same island. We also see Teddy serving in the war, watching slaughtered bodies all around him but does not indulge in killing, though he does decide a man’s dying moments.

His acceptance of his past in the war proves he did not suffer from post war trauma and it primarily serves as a foundation for his misplaced guilt and grief, otherwise his subconscious would have fought to keep those out as well. While searching Solando’s room he discovers a note with the words “The Law of 4” and “Who is 67” scribbled on it, that suggests the existence of a 67th patient, i.e, Teddy and the wordplay Teddy’s mind works up to form two entities (Andrew Daniels and Rachel Solando) that displace his guilt.

The lighthouse is a mysterious structure looming over the island and probably has a similar importance as The Wicker Man, like a totem pole worshipped by Teddy’s instincts. There’s also an inexplicable band-aid on his forehead, foreshadowing the lobotomy process that he will have to face and probably a result of his fight with Noyce. During the interrogation scene, a patient in the absence of Chuck writes the letters “RUN” to convey a message to Teddy, making the lead dubious about his place in the plot. Step forward a few scenes, we find out that Rachel has been found and she gets intimate with Teddy, imitating Dolores in the process.

Teddy suffers from a migraine, which are preceded by flashes of lightning. Flickering lights, panging artificial flashes and lightning is used throughout the movie as a sign of welcome by his hallucinations. He dreams about Laeddis, an archetypal madman with a huge scar across his face and a mere creation of his mind, and Rachel who has a throat wound similar to the old lady that irked him. This is followed by another hallucination of Dolores meeting him in the quarters. The next day, we find out that the storm has destroyed most of the walls and fences, and the two Marshalls head into Ward C (this I believe was improvised by Dr Sheehan on the spot). We meet a half naked inmate who gives a jumpscare and says “Tag! You’re it” before tapping Teddy. The execution is spot on, the light only focuses on the two characters despite no electricity blending everything around them with the darkness and though we expect a fright, it is amplified by this technique.

Later, Teddy is drawn by a voice chanting the name Laeddis towards a cell with the caged George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley), whose consistent pleading is completely misunderstood by Teddy. The wounds on Noyce’s are later learnt, inflicted by Teddy after Noyce tries to make him face the reality, highlighting Teddy’s violent tendencies. A terrified Noyce talks about lobotomies and experiments, fueling Teddy’s beliefs that Shutter Island conducts human experiments, which is reflective of the opaque mindset of the masses during that period. Noyce questions Chuck’s motives and Teddy’s consciousness, and this scene is very effective in deciding the coming events. This scene involves the use of the traditional reverse shot and modifications with the Kuleshov Effect, with our reactions being a result of Noyce’s expressions.

Teddy later meets the real Rachel Solando in a cave inside the cliff and she claims to be a psychiatrist who was charged with madness by the facility. Her opinions are very similar to ramblings of a crazy person with emphasis on conspiracies that are factually incorrect. She manages to ruffle Teddy by alerting him about the psychotropic drugs that were being used in the medicines and cigarettes to restrain the patients and also tells him the secret of the lighthouse; it is used to conduct Nazi-esque experiments on patients that would render them thoughtless and they can then be served to promote the Communist ideology, echoing the incessant ignorance. The following day, he searches his missing partner, who he believes was abducted by the officials and will now be tested upon.

During a scene with the warden, who drives him back, the warden unveils the truth out of a considerable sense of repressed hostility, hinting toward the past relationship between him and Teddy and also mentioning the fact that both of them were bound by the constraints of the society. Skipping to the lighthouse, after Teddy is made to believe that he arrived alone on the island, he finds Dr Cawley and a table where he expected the surgical room to be. We get to know that Chuck Aule is Dr Sheehan, Teddy’s primary psychiatrist and Teddy has been on the premises for 24 months, but as a patient who was inducted after he killed his wife. He’s also told that all the events that took place during the course were part of an alternate reality that Teddy a.k.a Andrew Laeddis had constructed to wash his hands off the guilt of the loss of his wife and three children.

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Earlier in the room, we see Dolores urging Teddy to get out or it would be the end of him, because of Teddy’s rendezvous with the reality. This is heavily inspired from ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, a German expressionist film from the 20s, with the lead unaware of his stance in conflicting realities. Though we are shown that Teddy accepts his past and looks strong enough to live with it, moments later he gives himself away to his unresolvable guilt and decides to die a good man than to live as a monster. He’s taken to the lighthouse for the lobotomy, where he hopes all his memories may be completely wiped off and we are left with an ambiguous ending which I believe, for the lack of a better word is irrelevant.

People overthink to find the truth that Teddy couldn’t, i.e, the reality because of the intentionally weak narrative but to tell you the truth that doesn’t matter, and also to note this is the first time when the audiences think for themselves rather than being led by Teddy. You start with Teddy and you end with Teddy, in your search for a conclusion you forget about the primary truth that he had accepted : “No more let life divide what death can join together”. His life either way is stuck in a vicious cycle and the only escape for him is to get rid of the memories and be free. The ambiguity is like sauce over sandwich, wavering the true essence or meaning.

The themes

Fire and Water play a significant role in the movie with the former drawing Teddy towards the truth he made up and the latter forcing him to accept the real truth, the one he had buried. In the scene where we are first introduced to Dolores, we see her back burning like a lump of coal when she turns around and starts moving away from Teddy, symbolizing the truth getting away from him or turning its back towards him. She then walks back to him, and both blood and water-spout out from her stomach when he holds her, conveying the reality of her being shot and the truth being closest to him at that moment. His memories are fragmented, when we see Rachel drowning her children after killing them and requesting Teddy to help her carry their bodies, with a contradicting shot towards the end where he brings their bodies out from the lake, signifying his underlying guilt for something he had not done.

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There are scenes in the movie where the lead strikes matches to look at things clearly amongst the pitch black background, which is similar to The Little Match Girl with the matches only creating a world of fantasy. There’s a line in the movie where DiCaprio’s character is praised for his impressive defense mechanisms by the great Max Von Sydow, and throughout the movie his mind keeps defending him from water, developing an unlikeness towards it, keeping him at bay from the truth he doesn’t want to confront. Cawley intentionally praises Rachel’s intelligence earlier in the movie, a remark on Teddy’s honed intelligence and strength that makes him a very difficult person to contain, and this is why his subconscious despite his delusional state goes to such remarkable lengths to create an alternative reality. There are instances where the only thing separating two characters is smoke, smoke from a match or a cigarette, smothering the expressions and reality with a hazy veil. Smoke being a derivative of fire, either conveys the effect of Teddy’s version enshrouding him or the volatility of it.

There’s a debatable scene involving a scarred Laedis, and we are shown a close-up of his hands lighting a match which precedes a series of similar shots but with Teddy’s hands lighting the match. This I believe indicates to Teddy seeing himself as the monster, a case of dissociative identity. Another scene involves Teddy blaming Laeddis for the fire that killed 4 people including his wife. Knowing Teddy’s guilt it’s just apt that the other 3 were his children, and him blaming Laeddis for their death is clarified towards the end when considers himself guilty for their death because he hadn’t attended to his wife’s deteriorating mental health.

Coming to water, more than half of the movie takes place during a storm which makes Teddy incredibly vulnerable to getting in contact with water, like the leaking roof while he’s sleeping or the washing away of the letters “RUN” or obscurity in his vision, things that make it difficult for him to see through the alternative truth. Probably the longest hallucination in the movie takes place in the cave when Teddy meets the “real” Rachel. There’s a small fire lit between them and Rachel is a caricature from Teddy’s mind and echoes the same doubts as him, and is factually incorrect owing to Teddy’s insufficient knowledge about medical study. Teddy himself says “survival instincts become defense mechanisms”, him finding a cave to survive the storm. Before this, he sees Chuck’s corpse on the rocks but it is seemingly washed away by water, wiping away another made up image. He then sees hundreds of rats pouring out of a hole, signifying erupting desire out of paranoia and initiating the Rachel hallucination.

The ending

There’s an interesting scene towards the end, when Teddy blows up the car. He is persistent on finding the truth and completely disregards Dolores, and uses a memento of her love to torch the car. The car does explode, with brilliant contrast to his own ever-amplifying implosion, and his mind brings his daughter and Dolores in the same frame for the first time, a final effort to stop him from accessing the truth. Quite weirdly, one thing that went unnoticed was the lighthouse. The lighthouse in the beginning and the end are two different structures, and this is why I have mentioned Teddy being taken to a lighthouse for the lobotomy. Though Dr Cawley and Dr Sheehan try their best to help Teddy from the inside, the behavior of the other guards and Dr Naehring doesn’t suggest so and leaves a small room for some atrocities to take place, but then we are made to develop slight hostility when he is known to be a German immigrant.

There are continuity errors in the movie, but they are precisely placed to question the point of view we share with Teddy. The ending left me distraught because of one line Teddy says “You can never take away all a man’s memories. Never.”, this can be argued to be an event of foreshadowing but I believe it means there’s a good chance of Teddy continuing with few memories even after the lobotomy, and it is simply tragic to only have the brain handle the pain inflicted every second.

Final word

Overall, Shutter Island is a terrific film and one of the most intelligent films of this decade overloaded with symbolism that justifies Scorsese’s immortal stature. The narrative according to many critics is weak but it is an adaptation and has a moral responsibility to stick to its source material but Roger Ebert rightfully said “You may read reviews of Shutter Island complaining that the ending blindsides you. The uncertainty it causes prevents the film from feeling perfect on first viewing. I have a feeling it might improve on second. Some may believe it doesn’t make sense. Or that, if it does, then the movie leading up to it doesn’t. I asked myself: OK, then, how should it end? What would be more satisfactory? Why can’t I be one of those critics who informs the director what he should have done instead? This movie is all of a piece, even the parts that don’t appear to fit.”

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