Shutter Island Revisited

“Why you all wet, baby?” This question takes on eerie resonance throughout Martin Scorsese’s masterful 2010 adaptation of Shutter Island, which turns 10 today. It’s uttered both in flashback and in the present, by different characters with different emotional weight each time. It’s also part of the key to unlocking this film’s strange, disturbing pleasures. At first glance, Shutter Island is centered around a jaw-dropping third-act twist related to its lead character, a sweaty and determined U.S. Marshal on the hunt for a missing patient at a spooky mental institution on an isolated, stormy island. But if you know the story well enough, you come to the realization that what’s revealed in the third act isn’t a twist at all, and is simply a clarification of what makes this film so tragic and so special in Scorsese’s filmography.

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.

Insanity is Catching

When Shutter Island was first announced, I did something I don’t often do when it comes to filmmakers and their literary choices for adaptations: I read the Dennis Lehane novel on which the film would be based. Like the film, the book is about Edward, or Teddy, Daniels, a gruff U.S. Marshal on an assignment at a mental institution on the eponymous island. Teddy and his partner Chuck are beset upon by mentally ill patients, emotionally distant staff members, the possibility of an escaped lunatic, and more. Only, in the end, it turns out that Teddy isn’t really on assignment…because he isn’t Teddy at all.

Teddy is, instead, Andrew Laeddis, an anagram of the name Edward Daniels. Chuck isn’t his partner, but Andrew’s psychiatrist Lester Sheehan, and the entire story up to this reveal has been a last-ditch effort on the part of a few kindly doctors on the island to make Andrew accept reality. He is the missing patient Teddy was tasked with finding, having been in the institution for years for killing his wife after she drowned their children. Either Andrew can accept this painful truth and take steps to get better, or he may be lobotomized by the less emotionally invested medical staff at the institution. What’s more, it’s revealed that this isn’t the first time Andrew and his psychiatrist have gone through this ordeal; Andrew just keeps forgetting, choosing to live in a fantasy instead.

When I read the book, I genuinely hated the ending. Hated it. I felt that the surprise at the end was a sloppy, lazy, Twilight Zone-style twist meant to pull the rug out from under the reader without any underpinning of emotional logic. I was, of course, still intrigued by another collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. But I was even warier than before, because I feared that the film would follow the book to a T. If you know the book and the movie, then you know that screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis’ adaptation does pretty much follow the book’s arc, from start to finish. And somehow, I instantly clicked with Shutter Island as a film.

Bones in a Box

There’s a very clear reason why: Scorsese and Kalogridis, through the power of film, are able to communicate in ways that the novel can’t or doesn’t. To wit, it becomes very clear very early on that something is amiss, and not just the implication of a missing patient. Once you know the story, it’s not so much that you should approach watching Shutter Island with the intent of looking for hints as to Andrew’s true nature. It’s that Scorsese goes out of his way to emphasize how awkward everyone involved in this charade is. As convincing as DiCaprio is in his performance (and this is genuinely one of his best, most intense, and most desperate pieces of work), the other actors are just as convincing as…well, bad actors. Consider how Chuck (played in the film by Mark Ruffalo) stumbles when handing off his gun to the deputy warden when they approach Shutter Island for real. It’s the kind of moment that works better on screen than on the page, because of course Chuck wouldn’t know how to handle a weapon, since he’s really just Dr. Lester Sheehan.

The deft work that Scorsese does as director is incredibly skillful upon a rewatch. For anyone who’s read the book, he has to tip his hand enough that yes, this film will lead us to the inevitable realization Andrew has of what really brought him to Shutter Island. But for anyone who’s new to the story, he can’t make it so obvious that this U.S. Marshal is really a patient. Half of the credit has to go to DiCaprio, whose performance is often pitched at the same visceral heights as the lengthy sequences of squalor in The Aviator, the first time when he fully matured into his modern movie-star status. The other half goes to Scorsese, whose inspirations for the psychological horror of the film were as vast as 40s-era horror auteur Val Lewton and the booming strains of classical music.

It all combines for a film in which we’re both heavily inserted into the mindset of the protagonist, who would seem like he’s just a hairs’-breadth away from losing his sanity even if he wasn’t revealed to be a patient of the terrifying institution, and in which we’re able to stand on the brink of sanity and spot the obvious clues to Andrew’s identity. As much as it becomes painfully clear that Teddy Daniels is just an angry World War II veteran living with the guilt of his actions both at home and overseas, DiCaprio and Scorsese do their very best to entrench you inside a horrified, self-loathing mind. Perhaps the grimmest, most horrifying scene in the film comes during a seemingly endless pan shot, courtesy of Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, through piles of dead bodies in a World War II flashback as American soldiers mow down Nazis with their machine guns. It’s a disturbing scene meant to emphasize the true horror of war, even when you’re taking down an inhumane enemy. Even before he comes back home to a wife losing her own mind, Andrew is already haunted.

Live as a Monster…

That flashback, one of many plaguing Teddy/Andrew, is also key to the final choice he makes, after it’s revealed anew to him what really brought him to Shutter Island. Dr. Sheehan and his cohort, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), want very badly to prove that there are better ways to treat the institutionalized at a time in American history when electroshock therapy was still perceived to be the only correct path for those who seemed otherwise to be lost causes. In the very last scene, it seems as though Sheehan and Cawley have failed once again: Andrew refers to Sheehan once again as his partner Chuck, implying that he’s regressed once more into his fantasy. That is, until Andrew says, “Which would be worse? To live as a monster or to die as a good man?”

The film ends with Andrew being taken away by the orderlies, the implication being that he’ll be lobotomized and thus be a true shell of a man. But that question is enough to make the ending achieve an emotional catharsis: Andrew hasn’t regressed at all. Instead, he’s fully aware of what he’s done, and the gravity of it weighs so heavily upon him that he can’t live with the grief and the guilt. Andrew is essentially killing both himself and Teddy by acting like he’s regressed once more.

Shutter Island, on its face, may not have seemed like the kind of film that’s up Martin Scorsese’s alley. Though he’s often depicted the battle between criminals and the law, he’s not typically one for slick psychological thrillers; of course, you only have to watch to see the 50s-era B-movies he watched as an asthmatic kid growing up in Queens permeating the 2010 film. The sweaty cop, the mysterious doctors, the twisted experiments: they’re all ingredients Scorsese is able to add to heighten the tension of the film and to pay homage to his inspirations.

…or Die as a Good Man

Shutter Island was initially a pretty solid success at the box office, grossing $128 million domestically after having its release date shifted from the fall of 2009 to early 2010. The initial assumptions were that the film would have to be a dud; why else would Paramount Pictures move the latest collaboration between the star and director of the Oscar-winning The Departed out of the awards season? Since then, though, some have since decried its final act, including the aforementioned bit where Cawley quotes “Why you all wet, baby?” a few times and goes as far as writing down the two names “Andrew Laeddis” and “Edward Daniels” to emphasize the two men’s shared connections. 

Yet even as the characters spell it out for our tortured hero, the twist of Shutter Island is both the point of the film and not remotely meant to surprise. It’s more apt to look at the 2010 film as a character study, another portrait of American male guilt, that topic which Scorsese has so excelled at over his incredible filmography. The film is thrilling and unexpected, but it’s also a fever-pitch nightmare descent into the mindset of a man who’s fooling only himself and being fooled by everyone around him. To know what’s really going on in this film is to enhance your experience.

Now that Shutter Island is 10 years old, and finally available on 4K Blu-ray to boot, you ought to watch it again. The greatest movies reveal themselves in full on repeat viewings; a first-time experience can be delightful or transportive or unforgettable, but watching such classics more than once often shows you angles you hadn’t noticed before, line readings with greater impact, side details, and more. Shutter Island is deliberately designed to be watched more than once. You can’t fully grasp the tragedy of Andrew Laeddis on just one viewing, even if you know going in the broad details. This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most special, unnerving, and intelligent films; like the man whose mind it wades through, it deserves another chance.

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