My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 76, Shutter Island

76 – Shutter Island:


As we get to today’s film, I realise that this is the first time I’ve watched Leonardo DiCaprio in anything since he won his long-awaited Oscar. Now I thought The Revenant was a fine film and he was great in it. But Mr DiCaprio has really fallen into the trap that by the time he finally wins his Oscar, the role he wins it for is in the shadow of a previous performance. His long-time friend Kate Winslet finally won for the forgettable holocaust film The Reader – rather than Little Children or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Screen legend Al Pacino was awarded for Scent of a Woman rather than his iconic role in The Godfather. Susan Sarandon was snubbed for Thelma & Louise and had to wait until Dead Man Walking. Jack Nicholson was ignored for Chinatown and awarded for As Good As It Gets. So I think by now you might have guessed which film I think our Leo should have been recognised for. Some people might be outraged that Shutter Island wasn’t even nominated. The reason is a mundane one: the studio was already campaigning for Up In The Air and The Lovely Bones, so Shutter Island got pushed back and was ineligible. Given that The Lovely Bones only got one nomination out of the campaign, methinks the studio didn’t quite have its priorities in order. But enough complaining about baffling awards decisions – or we’ll be here for several years – we have a film to review.

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Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the few males in the film industry who can say he endured the ‘So Beautiful It’s A Curse’ backlash and survived. He began as a teen idol on the sitcom Growing Pains, before winning critical acclaim for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He became a worldwide superstar with his memorable turn as Jack in James Cameron’s romantic epic Titanic. He became every late 90s/early 2000s tween girl’s dream guy as a result. As such, the backlash came quickly and with a vengeance. Every DiCaprio film released in the years following Titanic was destroyed by critics, regardless of quality. He wasn’t the first to suffer such backlash, and he certainly wasn’t the last. But DiCaprio was ever the determinator and fought against his pretty boy backlash with meatier and meatier roles – proving he did indeed have the chops. Most people generally agree that The Departed was the real turning point. His frequent collaborations with Martin Scorsese were a godsend in breaking him out of the backlash. In fact, their most recent project – The Wolf of Wall Street – was meant to be made instead of this film. But financing fell through, and Scorsese saw Shutter Island as an honourable second choice.

Shutter Island 6

Our setting is Boston in 1954. A Marshal called Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is suffering from a nasty bout of sea sickness as he travels on a boat with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). Teddy gets unusually personal with a man he just met and mentions that he was married. Was as in past tense, because the young lady is dead now. But through the magic of film, we still get to see her in a flashback. As she’s played by noted actress Michelle Williams, you can assume that we’ll be seeing more of her. She died in a fire.

“Don’t worry, I stayed hot.”

The two are on their way to a mental hospital on an island, and the movie’s distinctive overpowering score lets us know we’re meant to feel a tad ominous about it. This is the titular Shutter Island, an institution divided into three wards – one for males, one for females and one for the BAMFs of mental illness.

“You rang?”

The Marshals have to hand over their guns before they can enter, and reluctantly agree. Chuck notably has a hard time with his. You’d think he’d never held a gun before. Anyway, Shutter Island is unique for the mental hospitals of the day in that it’s actually a hospital. Mental institutions in their first incarnations were usually a combination of prisons and circuses. The wards were often open for the public to come in so they could point and laugh. The most famous of these was London’s Bethlem Royal – which got the nickname ‘Bedlam House’. It wasn’t until the 20th century that insanity started getting treated like an actual illness. There were still plenty of naysayers, and it seems that Teddy is one of them. When introduced to Dr Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), Teddy is unsympathetic to the patients’ situations. Insisting on calling them ‘prisoners’, he seems to really look down on them.


Teddy and Chuck are here to investigate a female patient that escaped last night. Named Rachel Solando and shown in a photo to be played by British actress Emily Mortimer – she’s a war widow who lost her husband on the beaches of Normandy. One day she drowned all three of her children and arranged them at the dinner table. Even though she’s been at the institution for a while, she believes she’s still at her home. She’s created a fictional world for herself and imagined all the patients and staff as characters in it.

She also asks them to call her ‘Baby Doll’.

A once-over around the island’s cliffs tell them that the ferocious waves would have washed Rachel’s body on the beach – so she didn’t go into the water. There’s a set of caves, but they’re surrounded by poison ivy. There’s also a lighthouse but it’s already been searched. But Teddy’s expression and the conspicuous framing indicate it could do with a second check at some point.


An interview with the staff – who are rather snarky towards a federal Marshal – reveals that Rachel snuck out while an orderly was using the bathroom. Before that, she was in a group therapy session overseen by a Dr Sheehan. They can’t question him because he’s already left the island for his vacation. Chuck points out the insane troll logic of this. A search of Rachel’s room reveals that she left without her shoes and only left behind a piece of paper.


That night, Teddy and Chuck are shown the doctors’ quarters – which is much grander and more visually appealing than the hospital. They meet another doctor, Naehring (Max von Sydow). The man is German, which brings back unpleasant memories for Teddy. You see, the good Marshal is just the right age to have fought in World War II. The following flashbacks also reveal that he was in one of the units that liberated a concentration camp. There’s a dialogue-free scene of Teddy standing over a dying SS guard, preventing him from grabbing his gun to shoot himself – all set to a piece by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. It’s probably the most intense scene in the film.

Teddy and Chuck are refused patients’ files, which they really need for their investigation. When the board of directors refuse to hand them over, they declare they’ll leave first thing in the morning. There’s quite a storm outside, so we’ll just see about that. The Marshals have to bunk with the orderlies, and Teddy dreams of his wife. As is in the job description for murdered spouses appearing in dreams, she gives him cryptic warnings about what he has to do. She also mentions a name – Laeddis – before crumbling into ashes. I have to say that I love how Scorsese chose to light and frame these sequences. They make a really nice contrast to the bleak greenish feel of the island. The warmer colours and lights create a strange comforting feeling – which perfectly reflects how inviting living in the past usually is. The dissonance between the look and what Teddy’s actually dreaming about only adds to the feel. But as an aside, how many times must poor Leo be haunted by his dead wife?



Leo, you should really find a lady that wants to go into the light.

Talk between Teddy and Dr Cawley the next morning turns to the nature of mental medicine. Dr Cawley is against the extreme procedures most institutions used to deal with patients – a lobotomy to turn them into a vegetable and thorazine to keep them docile. He’s into that new-fangled nonsense called therapy – where you can cure patients without resorting to drugs or surgery. He uses Rachel as an example; the biggest obstacle to her recovery was refusing to admit what she had done. Teddy doesn’t seem convinced, judging by his rather hot-tempered attitude when interviewing the patients. At least one woman proves helpful – sneakily scribbling something in Teddy’s pocketbook when Chuck isn’t looking. When Teddy asks about a man called Andrew Laeddis, all the patients deny that they’ve heard the name.

Suspicious Cat

Teddy is now even more suspicious, since he can tell that the patients were coached on what to say. But Chuck is more curious about this Andrew Laeddis. After some prodding, Teddy confesses that the man was a janitor in his old apartment building. He was also an arsonist. And remember that Teddy’s wife died in a fire? Laeddis wasn’t convicted for this and disappeared for a while, before he was eventually put away for burning down a school house. Teddy requested this case specifically because he knew Laeddis was a patient here – courtesy of a former patient called George Noyce. And the only place an arsonist could be is Ward C – with the criminally insane. Teddy then reveals what the female patient wrote in his pocketbook.


A storm is raging around them, so they take shelter in a mausoleum. This brings back Teddy’s memories from the day he liberated the concentration camp. Once the guards surrendered, the Americans took their guns and shot them all to death. This is indeed something that happened when Dachau was liberated on April 29th 1945. As shown in the film, one prisoner tries to run away. He’s shot by a trigger-happy teenager and this prompts everyone else to shoot the rest of them. Despite this being nearly ten years ago, Teddy is still haunted by it. So he doesn’t want to kill anymore. He’s here to investigate something far more sinister.

Such as whether his partner has any significant rage issues.

He’s been keeping tabs on Shutter Island for a while. There have been endless rumours that the doctors here are experimenting on the patients. He’s lucky that Rachel escaped or else he’d have had no excuse to come to the island. But Chuck raises the point that it seems a little too coincidental. Now he’s wondering whether there even is a Rachel, and if this is all just a trap to keep him on the island. Teddy is now incredibly spooked and just wants off the island immediately. Too bad about the typhoon outside.

Or as we call it in Ireland, ‘a light drizzle’.

Teddy and Chuck walk in on an ethics discussion between the doctors regarding the patients during the storm. Nahering wants to keep them restrained in shackles just in case the power fails. Cawley doesn’t, since they’ll surely drown if it floods. The discussion helps Teddy realise something: add the twenty-four patients in Ward C to the forty-two in Wards A and B, and you get sixty-six. Rachel’s writing of sixty-seven is implying that there is another patient on the island unaccounted for. But moving onto people who *are* accounted for, Rachel has apparently been found.

SI Rachel 1

When Rachel is introduced to the two Marshals, things get very awkward for Teddy. She somehow thinks he’s her husband. But then she has a moment of realisation that her husband is really dead – and thus she has to be restrained by the orderlies. It says a lot for the rest of the movie that this isn’t the freakiest scene in it. Cawley says she was found by the lighthouse we saw earlier. But Teddy is in no fit state to do any more figuring out; the lightning is giving him a migraine. He and Chuck have to take shelter from the storm in the basement with the patients and orderlies. You can either blame the storm or the company for the elaborate nightmare Teddy ends up having. At first he’s back among the dead inmates at Dachau, where the body of a little girl demands to know why he didn’t save her in time. Then he dreams of Rachel, and the same girl is among her murdered children. Finally, he dreams of his own wife again – who delivers some more cryptic information.

“Y’all shoulda just let me solve this case.”

In the morning, the back-up generator has now failed and the patients are running around all over the place. Teddy and Chuck use this as a good opportunity to stroll over to the now-empty Ward C. Well it’s not completely empty, as a patient attacks them. But once Chuck and a guard take him away, it becomes empty. At least until Teddy goes investigating by himself; he finds none other than George Noyce, his old contact. He claims he got thrown back in the hospital after Teddy drew too much attention to himself. And now he’s afraid they’ll take him to the lighthouse to permanently silence him.


After a brief hallucination of his wife, Teddy concludes that Laeddis must be in the lighthouse. Chuck comes back with the news that the wardens aren’t happy to hear that Teddy attacked a patient – but he also managed to snag Laeddis’s admission form, confirming he’s on the island. So they decide to swing by the lighthouse. That’s easier said than done, given the steep rocks surrounding it. Teddy leaves Chuck to see if he can find a way. But when he returns, Chuck is nowhere to be found. Until Teddy checks under the cliffs however.


Teddy climbs down the cliff to try and help, but the body appears to have been washed out to sea when he gets down. He notices a light coming from one of the caves, and finds a woman played by Patricia Clarkson. He guesses right away that she is the real Rachel Solando. She confirms that and says she was never married and never had any children – and she worked at Shutter Island as a psychiatrist. That is until she began investigating some of the strange goings on. And when she discovered that the staff were experimenting on patients with mind control techniques – just as the Nazis experimented on Jews and the Soviets on the prisoners in their gulags. Hmm, Patricia Clarkson going on about how awful experimenting on people is?

Didn’t need that much persuasion, huh Clarkson?

Rachel claims that she was discredited and thrown in the hospital once she asked too many questions – and they’re likely to do the same to Teddy. The fact that he’s already eaten food on the island and taken pills from Dr Cawley is an even bigger no-no. They’re performing brain surgery in the lighthouse. The next morning, Rachel tells him he’ll have to leave so they don’t find her. She also tells him he’s never leaving the island. Teddy’s day doesn’t get any better when he goes back to the hospital to find Chuck; Dr Cawley claims he doesn’t have a partner and came here alone.


Teddy bumps into Dr Naehring and he can see that the good doctor is concealing a sedative in his pocket. After he gets a lecture on the nature of trauma, Teddy uses it on him. His wife pops up once again to advise him not to do what he’s about to do – set fire to a car to create a distraction. Just before the car explodes, Teddy hallucinates of the little girl from his nightmares. For some reason, she joins hands with his wife. It’s now time for Teddy to jump into the sea and swim over to that mysterious lighthouse. In there, he finds Dr Cawley. I’m not going to beat around the bush because there’s no way my writing can do this scene justice. But it’s time for a twist.


Teddy is really a patient at Shutter Island – for the past two years. Or rather, Andrew is a patient. Dr Cawley calls him Andrew. ‘Teddy’ is a nickname for Edward. And the full name Edward Daniels works as a perfect anagram for the name Andrew Laeddis. To further underscore this, Dr Cawley mentions his wife. Her first name was Dolores, and her maiden name Chanal. That acts as another anagram for Rachel Solando. He is the 67th patient, committed because he could not bring himself to admit to his crime. So he created this elaborate conspiracy to prevent himself from having to realise the truth. As a result, he’s been one of the hospital’s most violent and destructive patients. And the board of directors are asking for something more permanent to be done.

I really want to sing the praises of Sir Ben Kingsley in this. For one, Dr Cawley’s role in the first two acts is to be unpredictably creepy. When the twist reveals that the whole thing is really just a patient’s hallucination, Dr Cawley is now a friendly figure who just wants to help him recover. So Ben Kingsley had a very tricky job to do. I always mark something down if the red herring behaves too suspiciously when s/he has no reason to. Watching Ben Kingsley back in the first two acts, his performance isn’t any different to how it is now. The context and set-up have changed, but he hasn’t. So he manages to be both the creepy mad scientist and the caring psychiatrist, without having to adjust his performance at all. But we have to get back to our regularly scheduled plot twists, as we are introduced to the elusive Dr Sheehan…

“I’m not his twin, don’t worry. This place isn’t *that* nuts.”

Throughout the first two acts, you can see the movie dropping plenty of hints regarding Dr Sheehan’s identity. Notable is how uncomfortable the staff are when they first mention him – since now we know they have to pretend he’s not there. Likewise, when the female patient talks about Dr Sheehan being attractive, there are a couple of shots of ‘Chuck’ grinning. Also, it explains why Chuck helps with the patient that attacks them in Ward C; he’s trained to deal with violent patients. On a deeper level, it explains why ‘Teddy’ was unusually close to someone he just met. Dr Sheehan has been his psychiatrist for two years – and the last two days were an elaborate roleplay done in the hopes of shaking him out of his delusions. To underline that point, he grabs his gun and…


Apparently after coming home from the war, he was a bit of a mess. He spent most of his time drinking and he was none the wiser to his wife’s psychotic tendencies. She was the one that set their apartment on fire. And when he moved them to a lake house, she drowned their three children. The little girl ‘Teddy’ has been dreaming of is really his youngest daughter. Named Rachel. This is another twist that was cleverly hidden. The little girl asking why he didn’t save her in time – we just assume that she was a girl who died in the concentration camp. Now hallucinations of Dolores and Rachel appear in front of him, Dolores now saying:

“I told you this place would be the end of you.”


It’s time to flash back to the event in question. And just because we know what Teddy – or I suppose Andrew – is about to see already, it does not make it any easier to watch. I do have to say that this seems almost like the perfect role for Michelle Williams. It’s a little disturbing how easily she plays this Ophelia figure. Ever since I’ve seen this movie, all her other famous roles don’t feel as natural. Martin Scorsese has said that his favourite horror film is the original 1963 version of The Haunting. So I wonder if he was inspired by Eleanor in that when directing Michelle Williams as Dolores.

The flashback confirms that Andrew shot his wife for drowning the children. The revelation is too much for him and he faints. When he comes around, we quickly see that the ‘Rachel’ Emily Mortimer appeared as is really another nurse at the hospital. But it looks like Andrew might finally have come to his senses – as he confesses to everything he’s done. Dr Cawley says he had a breakthrough like this nine months ago, but he regressed. So they have to make sure he doesn’t do so again. The final scene has Dr Sheehan sitting next to Andrew…who calls him Chuck. Sheehan shakes his head at the other doctors, who take Andrew off to the lighthouse to be lobotomised. Before he goes, he says the following:



So this marked Leonardo DiCaprio’s second big hit of 2010 – along with Inception. Although as I said above, The Departed got the ball rolling, it was the one-two punch of these movies that put DiCaprio forward as a serious talent in Hollywood. Of course this film is far more than just a vehicle for him. The plot of a character discovering that they’re really the patient in a mental hospital is hardly something new – but it’s pulled off with incredible style here. Scorsese is almost channelling Alfred Hitchcock with the atmosphere he creates, and as such the film really blurs the line between psychological thriller and out-and-out horror movie. The only other modern movie I can think of that really nails this kind of ‘second-guessing yourself’ tone is Black Swan. And as far as twist endings go, this a movie that’s really fun to watch on the second time. The hints are everywhere, and it’s a testament to Scorsese’s direction that he managed to do so without giving the twist away too early. As expected with the open nature of the ending, opinions are different. The original author of the book Dennis Lehane thinks that Teddy/Andrew never recovers from his illness – and he only has a brief flash of reality before relapsing. The psychiatric advisor on the film however said that Andrew recovers, but chooses to get lobotomised as a way to make sure he pays for his crime. This does call back to Naehring’s line about how when Teddy/Andrew is confronted with a monster, he has to destroy it. As I said in The Company of Wolves review, I love a movie that can leave it up to you to figure out what the story’s really about. And as I said in the opening paragraph, this is the performance that DiCaprio really should have been recognised for.


Movie, why are you all grade-y?

*Story? The actual story is gold – with nice plot twists and plenty of foreshadowing scattered throughout. But the execution of a lot of it makes the film feel a little too episodic – as if some of the stuff was just translated from the book without much thought to how it would flow. It’s a minor gripe though. A-

*Characters? Teddy is a fascinating character, and his tragic journey is almost Shakespearian. Kudos to the movie for a very balanced and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness. A+

*Performances? Ladies and gentlemen, the moment Mr DiCaprio arrived. I’m not a Mark Ruffalo fan but he was on his game here. Sir Ben Kingsley I already praised above and I will do so again. Michelle Williams was eerily natural. A+

*Visuals? You’d think a movie with such a solid story and characters would have to slip up in the visual department, but it’s damn near flawless. The green tint of the hospital, the creepy warm lighting of the hallucinations, the outdoor cinematography…gah, I’m running out of words to use. A+

*Special Effects? Used very wisely to simulate the migraines, and the frozen bodies were almost too realistic. That being said, I caught a few green screened shots that didn’t blend in as well with the on-location stuff. But again, that’s a minor gripe. A-

*Anything Else? The significance of the names Andrew Laeddis and Dolores Chanal were unfortunately deflated by how little they were used. Laeddis isn’t mentioned until half an hour in, and we only hear Dolores’s name right before we’re told the reason it’s important. Nothing that couldn’t have been solved with a couple of extra lines early on to properly foreshadow them. B

We journey to the bad old days of Scotland, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie up next.


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