Shutter Island (2010)

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Shutter Island (2010)

In 1954, a U.S. Marshal investigates the disappearance of a murderer who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane.

Shutter Island (2010) Trailer

Shutter Island (2010) Reviews

“Shutter Island” starts working on us with the first musical notes under the Paramount logo’s mountain, even before the film starts. They’re ominous and doomy. So is the film. This is Martin Scorsese’s evocation of the delicious shuddering fear we feel when horror movies are about something and don’t release all the tension with action scenes.In its own way it’s a haunted house movie, or make that a haunted castle or fortress. Shutter Island, we’re told, is a remote and craggy island off Boston, where a Civil War-era fort has been adapted as a prison for the criminally insane. We approach it by boat through lowering skies, and the feeling is something like the approach to King Kong’s island: Looming in gloom from the sea, it fills the visitor with dread. To this island travel U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo).
It’s 1954, and they are assigned to investigate the disappearance of a child murderer (Emily Mortimer). There seems to be no way to leave the island alive. The disappearance of one prisoner might not require the presence of two marshals unfamiliar with the situation, but we never ask that question. Not after the ominous walls of the prison arise. Not after the visitors are shown into the office of the prison medical director, Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley with that forbidding charm he has mastered.It’s clear that Teddy has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Teddy — such an innocuous name in such a gothic setting. Scorsese, working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, seems to be telling a simple enough story here; the woman is missing, and Teddy and Chuck will look for her. But the cold, gray walls clamp in on them, and the offices of Cawley and his colleagues, furnished for the Civil War commanding officers, seem borrowed from a tale by Edgar Allan Poe.Scorsese the craftsman chips away at reality piece by piece. Flashbacks suggest Teddy’s traumas in the decade since World War II. That war, its prologue and aftermath, supplied the dark undercurrent of classic film noir. The term “post-traumatic shock syndrome” was not then in use, but its symptoms could be seen in men attempting to look confident in their facades of unstyled suits, subdued ties, heavy smoking and fedoras pulled low against the rain. DiCaprio and Ruffalo both affect this look, but DiCaprio makes it seem more like a hopeful disguise.

The film’s primary effect is on the senses. Everything is brought together into a disturbing foreshadow of dreadful secrets. How did this woman escape from a locked cell in a locked ward in the old fort, its walls thick enough to withstand cannon fire?

Why do Cawley and his sinister colleague Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow, ready to play chess with Death) seem to be concealing something? Why is even such a pleasant person as the deputy warden not quite convincingly friendly? (He’s played by John Carroll Lynch, Marge’s husband in “Fargo,” so you can sense how nice he should be.) Why do the methods in the prison trigger flashbacks to Teddy’s memories of helping to liberate a Nazi death camp?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of film noir. The hero is always flawed. Scorsese showed his actors the great 1947 noir “Out of the Past,” whose very title is a noir theme: Characters never arrive at a story without baggage. They have unsettled issues, buried traumas. So, yes, perhaps Teddy isn’t simply a clean-cut G-man. But why are the others so strange? Kingsley in particular exudes menace every time he smiles.There are thrilling visuals in “Shutter Island.” Another film Scorsese showed his cast was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and we sense echoes of its hero’s fear of heights. There’s the possibility that the escaped woman might be lurking in a cave on a cliff, or hiding in a lighthouse. Both involve hazardous terrain to negotiate, above vertiginous falls to waves pounding on the rocks below.A possible hurricane is approaching. Light leaks out of the sky. The wind sounds mournful. It is, as they say, a dark and stormy night. And that’s what the movie is about: atmosphere, ominous portents, the erosion of Teddy’s confidence and even his identity. It’s all done with flawless directorial command. Scorsese has fear to evoke, and he does it with many notes.

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?

Oh, I’ve had moments like that. Every moviegoer does. But not with “Shutter Island.” This movie is all of a piece, even the parts that don’t appear to fit. There is a human tendency to note carefully what goes before, and draw logical conclusions. But — what if you can’t nail down exactly what went before? What if there were things about Cawley and his peculiar staff that were hidden? What if the movie lacks a reliable narrator? What if its point of view isn’t omniscient but fragmented? Where can it all lead? What does it mean? We ask, and Teddy asks, too.

  • Roger Ebert –  Roger Ebert
  • Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Spoiler Alert: Although every effort has been made to limit the revelations in this review, it’s difficult to provide a coherent discussion of Shutter Island without giving away something, so readers are hereby placed on alert. If you’re familiar with the book, however, there’s no reason to stop here…

What’s wrong with Shutter Island? This has been the question ever since Paramount Pictures elected to move the Martin Scorsese-directed thriller from its comfortable pre-Oscar position to the wastelands of February. It turns out that there’s nothing wrong with Shutter Island – except perhaps that it’s not Oscar worthy material.

An atmospheric mind-fuck of a thriller, this movie delights in playing games with the audience’s perceptions and has been crafted with such competence that it rises above the somewhat generic storyline that forms the basis of Dennis Lehane’s novel. The strength of the film, like the book, is that it never allows the viewer to feel comfortable with what he is watching.

That’s because Shutter Island is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator and, as such, the lines between fantasy and reality sometimes blur so strongly that it’s easy to become unanchored in trying to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. A case can be made that the movie is so enamored with this aspect of its approach that it fails to connect on an emotional level.

Shutter Island addresses some powerful, disturbing concepts but, despite effective performances by the leads, the movie’s psychological impact is minimal. It doesn’t pack the powerhouse punch one has come to expect from Scorsese. Still, the director’s consummate skill has lifted what might otherwise be a middling endeavor into something compellingly watchable. It’s another Cape Fear.

The time is 1954, with the Cold War and its associated paranoia on the rise and the black magic of Nazi Germany still not entirely dispelled. The place is Shutter Island, a forbidding outcropping off the New England coast. Shutter Island houses Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane. Even more escape-proof than Alcatraz, Shutter Island virtually guarantees that the only ways out are through an officially sanctioned release or as a victim of the sea and the rocks it pummels.

Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), arrive on blustery early autumn day to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who has vanished without a trace. Her doctors, Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow), are less than open about what’s going on behind-the-scenes on the island, and their unhelpfulness arouses Teddy’s suspicions that all is not what it appears to be.

Clues lead him to believe he’s not merely investigating the disappearance of one woman but that he has stumbled upon experimentation exported from Germany and being used to develop perfect Cold Warriors.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, Shutter Island reflects its source material. The movie is unlike either of the recent Lehane adaptations, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, in that it’s more gothic and atmospheric and divorced from the realities of modern tragedy. Shutter Island‘s position as a period piece allows Scorsese’s stylized perspective to work effectively.

He borrows liberally from film noir and conventional horror, synthesizing a result that at times recalls the way in which Stanley Kubrick approached The Shining. It’s unlikely any other director would have made Shutter Island in quite the same way. The place is a character. The stormy weather is a character. Even the loud, thunderous music is a character.

We recognize from the beginning that something is “off.” Without going into details which might spell out too many of the narrative’s detours, I can say that Scorsese conveys the influence of an unreliable narrator without explicitly revealing where the perspective diverges from an objective view of events. As a result, we can never fully trust what we’re seeing.

In most movies, it’s an easy enough task to differentiate between dream sequences, flashbacks, and concrete reality. These elements are present in Shutter Island, but the lines between them blur. Only in retrospect is it possible to delineate them.

The problem with the film (to the extent that it is a problem) is that the central tragedies of Teddy’s character are emotionally muted. They begin (in flashback) with his reaction to the concentration camp at Dachau where he arrives as a member of the liberating force and continue to a more recent event: the death of his beloved wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a fire. He is a tortured, haunted man, and those things only begin to reveal the demons that claw at his soul.

Yet, perhaps because the structure necessitates this, Scorsese keeps the viewer at arm’s-length. We observe the character from a distance and never empathize with him. We acknowledge his pain but don’t experience it alongside him. For all that the craft of Shutter Island eclipses that of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, its emotional impact is inferior.

DiCaprio, who has become Scorsese’s go-to actor in the post-DeNiro era, turns in another strong, mature performance. In the immediate wake of Titanic, DiCaprio allowed himself to cash in a little on his success but, over the years, he has gravitated more toward prestige projects working for respected directors (Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Same Mendes, Edward Zwick). Had Shutter Island maintained its original late-2009 release date, DiCaprio would have been in the running for a Lead Actor Oscar nomination.

He is ably supported by screen legends Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, who use their reputations to good effect. Mark Ruffalo is a little bland, but his character doesn’t have much to do. The rest of the cast is comprised of accomplished character actors: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas. (Contrary to a surprisingly long-legged rumor that’s making the Internet rounds, DeNiro does not make an appearance.)

Shutter Island is satisfying in ways that February movies often are not. Like all solid thrillers, it engages while challenging the intellect. Its puzzle, while not as twisty as some, is nevertheless enticing to piece together. Yet it’s easy to understand Paramount’s reluctance to release the movie in the thick of the Oscar season because it’s not really an awards-caliber movie.

Shutter Island is enjoyable in part because of the way Scorsese approaches the material, but it is ultimately nothing more than a well-made genre effort. Relieved of the weight of Oscar expectations, perhaps Shutter Island will open up to audiences who view Scorsese as being too “artistic.” After all, this production is many things, but pretentious is not among them.

  • A movie review by James Berardinelli


Shutter Island (2010) Credits

Shutter Island movie poster

Shutter Island (2010)

Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity

138 minutes


Ted Levine as Warden

Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels

Mark Ruffalo as Chuck Aule

Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring

Michelle Williams as Dolores

Jackie Earle Haley as George

Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley

Based on the novel by

  • Dennis Lehane

Written by

  • Laeta Kalogridis

Directed by

  • Martin Scorsese


Shutter Island (2010) Plot

In 1954, U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule travel to Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, Boston Harbor to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, who drowned her three children.

The staff, led by psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley, appear uncooperative. The marshals learn that Solando’s doctor Lester Sheehan left the island on vacation immediately after Solando disappeared. Teddy experiences migraine headaches, flashbacks of his experiences as a U.S. Army soldier during the liberation of Dachau and also vivid dreams of his wife Dolores, who was killed in a fire set by arsonist Andrew Laeddis.

Teddy explains to Chuck that he took the case to find Laeddis, believing he is on the island. Solando suddenly resurfaces, prompting Teddy to break into a restricted ward where he meets patient George Noyce. He claims the doctors are experimenting on patients, some of whom are taken to a lighthouse to be lobotomized, and warns Teddy that everyone is deceiving him.

Teddy regroups with Chuck and they climb the cliffs toward the lighthouse but become separated. Seeing Chuck’s body on the rocks below, Teddy investigates but finds only a cave where a woman claiming to be the real Solando is hiding. She states that she is a former psychiatrist who discovered experiments to develop mind control but was forcibly committed.

She says that Cawley and his assistant Dr. Naehring will use Teddy’s war trauma to feign a psychotic break, allowing them to have him committed. Teddy returns to the hospital and is greeted by Cawley. When Teddy asks about Chuck’s whereabouts, Cawley firmly insists that Teddy does not have a partner, that he arrived on the island alone.

Convinced Chuck was taken to the lighthouse, Teddy heads there but runs into Naehring, who attempts to sedate him. Teddy overpowers him and breaks into the lighthouse, only to discover Cawley waiting for him. Teddy confronts Cawley and reveals his encounter with Solando, saying he believes Cawley is experimenting on him. Cawley denies that Solando ever existed and insists that Teddy has not been drugged, explaining the tremors as withdrawals from Chlorpromazine, an anti-psychotic medication that Teddy has been taking for two years.

Chuck arrives and reveals he is in fact Dr. Sheehan. Cawley explains that “Teddy” is the real Andrew Laeddis, incarcerated for murdering his manic depressive wife after she drowned their three children. Andrew did not seek help for Dolores when she burned down their apartment, instead moving his family to a lake house, where the tragedy struck.

Cawley explains that Andrew’s delusion is a result of his guilt, his migraines and hallucinations are in fact withdrawal symptoms, and recent events have been an elaborate role play designed to cure him. Overwhelmed by his sudden recall, Andrew faints.

Awakening later, Andrew calmly recounts the truth, satisfying the doctors. Cawley notes that they had achieved this state nine months before, but Andrew quickly regressed. He warns this will be Andrew’s last chance and if he lapses again he will be lobotomized.

Some time later, Andrew relaxes on the hospital grounds with Sheehan. Appearing delusional, Andrew again refers to Sheehan as “Chuck” and says they must leave the island. Sheehan signals to Cawley, who orders that Andrew be lobotomized. Andrew then asks Sheehan if it would be worse “to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” A stunned Sheehan calls Andrew “Teddy” but the latter does not respond and leaves peacefully with the orderlies.


Shutter Island (2010) Box office

Shutter Island was released alongside The Ghost Writer, and with $41 million finished first at the box office and gave Scorsese his best box office opening to-date. The film remained at #1 in its second weekend, with $22.2 million. Eventually, it grossed worldwide $294,805,697 and became Scorsese’s second highest-grossing film worldwide. It is Scorsese’s fifth movie to debut at the box office at #1 following Taxi DriverGoodfellasCape Fear, and The Departed.


Shutter Island (2010) Critical Response

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 68% based on 260 reviews, with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “It may not rank with Scorsese’s best work, but Shutter Islands gleefully unapologetic genre thrills represent the director at his most unrestrained.” On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 63 out of 100, based on 37 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film an average “C+” grade, on an A+ to F scale.

Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer gave the film 4/4 stars, claiming, “After four decades, Martin Scorsese has earned the right to deliver a simple treatment of a simple theme with flair.” Writing for The Wall Street Journal, John Anderson highly praised the film, suggesting it “requires multiple viewings to be fully realized as a work of art. Its process is more important than its story, its structure more important than the almost perfunctory plot twists it perpetrates. It’s a thriller, a crime story and a tortured psychological parable about collective guilt.”

Awarding the film 3+12 stars out of 4, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “the movie is about: atmosphere, ominous portents, the erosion of Teddy’s confidence and even his identity. It’s all done with flawless directorial command. Scorsese has fear to evoke, and he does it with many notes.” 

The Orlando Sentinels Roger Moore, who gave the film 2+12 stars out of 4, wrote, “It’s not bad, but as Scorsese, America’s greatest living filmmaker and film history buff should know, even Hitchcock came up short on occasion. See for yourself.” Dana Stevens of Slate described the film “an aesthetically and at times intellectually exciting puzzle, but it’s never emotionally involving”.

The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday negatively described the film as being “weird”.[40] A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote in his review that “Something TERRIBLE is afoot. Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself.” 

Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York named Shutter Island the fifth-best film of 2010.


Shutter Island (2010) Accolades


Shutter Island (2010) Movie Info

The implausible escape of a brilliant murderess brings U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe Hospital, a fortress-like insane asylum located on a remote, windswept island. The woman appears to have vanished from a locked room, and there are hints of terrible deeds committed within the hospital walls. As the investigation deepens, Teddy realizes he will have to confront his own dark fears if he hopes to make it off the island alive.


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