Shutter Island is one of those movies that changes every time you watch it. The first time, it’s a gripping, atmospheric tale of paranoia, mystery, and madness. And the ending–oh, the ending! The second time around–well, it’s hard to say more without spoiling a few of the movie’s many surprises and twists, but the experience is quite different.
The first half of this review will focus on the elements of the movie that worked–or didn’t–without spoiling any of the movie’s secrets or revealing the ending of any of its mysteries. The second will focus include spoilers and will examine the movie’s ending in particular.
When I first saw Shutter Island, I was of the opinion that it was a brilliant film. After two repeat viewings, I can say that it is not as brilliant as I thought it was, sadly–but it’s still a solidly crafted and well-acted psychological horror film.
Shutter Island tells the story of a federal marshal, Teddy Daniels, who is sent to investigate the disappearance of a woman incarcerated in a mental institution for drowning her three children. But Teddy has a couple of ulterior motives for investigating the island–he is tormented by dreams of his dead wife, who urges him to seek out her murderer, a pyromaniac named Andrew Laeddis, a mental patient on the island. And he suspects that everything on Shutter Island is not as it seems, and that the doctors may be using the island as a grounds for conducting unethical psychological experiments. As time goes on, Teddy begins to fear that he may have been intentionally brought to Shutter Island, and that the whole investigation may be part of an elaborate trap to stop him from prying too deeply into Shutter Island’s secrets.
Leonardo diCaprio is compelling as Teddy Daniels. He is a man deeply haunted by a traumatic past, suspicious of the science of psychology, flawed but ultimately good at heart. The mood Scorsese sets is just the right level of ominous (with a few exceptions; the opening scene, for example, tends towards the melodramatic). Teddy’s nightmares and flashbacks are some of the most visually arresting dream sequences ever committed to film. The movie’s surrealism only mounts as it moves along, and by the end of the film we come to share Teddy’s terror.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this movie and another recent film about dreams, reality, and psychology–Inception. Both movies have a similarly bombastic musical score, both contain eerily similar endings, and both center around a character played by Leonardo diCaprio who is haunted by the memory of his dead wife. Both films are good in their own way, and while their subject matter is similar, their approach is entirely different. Shutter Island is designed to scare and befuddle, whereas Inception is meant to thrill.
What will either make or break Shutter Island for the viewer is its twist ending. Some viewers may be insulted that all that went before was just an elaborate lie, and that the protagonist was insane the entire time–all the fear and suspense was building up to nothing. Others may appreciate the film as an exploration of a madman’s troubled psyche.
And still others may contend that the ending is not as clear-cut as it appears at first glance, that Teddy Daniels may actually be a sane man driven mad by a combination of trauma and psychotropic drugs over the course of the movie.
When I first saw Shutter Island, I was convinced that the ending was ambiguous. That, I believed, was the film’s true genius–that it could be interpreted two completely different ways. What exactly did I just watch? I wondered as I left the theater. The story of an insane man who slowly was forced to come to terms with a deep psychological trauma? Or the story of a federal marshal who was convinced he was insane so that he could never reveal the sinister nature of the island he was investigating?
Unfortunately, as I watch the movie more and more, I have come to accept that the filmmakers never intended the ending to be ambiguous. Teddy was meant to be insane all along. Well, it’s still a good plot twist, as plot twists go, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, but it’s not even a shade as good as it would have been if the viewer had been left in doubt. Imagine how good Shutter Island would have been if both possibilities had been presented as equally valid. Scorsese really lost a chance here. Shutter Island is a good film, but he could have made it a great one, and with only a few tweaks here or there.
Of course, despite the filmmakers’ intentions, it’s possible to argue that Teddy was sane all along–and many have done so, rather convincingly. In a future blog post, I will explore some of the arguments for both cases–that Teddy was sane, or that he was insane. My current view is that arguments for Teddy’s sanity give the film more credit than it perhaps deserves. The evidence that he is insane is just too strong, too compelling. Furthermore, Scorsese himself ruined the whole game by admitting that Teddy was insane, which suggests he was unaware of the potentially brilliant ambiguity his film might have possessed if he had only seized upon it.
So, in short, Shutter Island is a fun, dark, and mysterious film that is worth a couple of viewings–but ultimately no more than that, since its suspense hinges around a simple M. Night Shyamalan-worthy trick ending. It could have been more, and should have been more, but it is what it is, and what it is is one of the better horror films I have seen.