Shutter Island explained: behind the meaning of the movie

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This article reveals the plot and the detailed explanation of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island explaining its meaning and storyline. It is therefore recommended to read it after watching the movie in order not to ruin your viewing experience.

Shutter Island is one of those movie you realize you are facing something essential for The Seventh Art after the first twelve minutes. The very first opening shots of the movie – a ship slowly navigating in the fog and landing on an island as well as a detective on board with a strong seasickness meeting his new colleague – can let you breathe the air of great Cinema. On the island we find a gigantic and spooky mental asylum where the two detectives have to carry out an investigation against the backdrop of a significant loss in the sick detective’s past. The atmosphere is perfect, starting from lights and colours to a beautiful non-original soundtrack hand-selected by Robbie Robertson.

Martin Scorsese makes you realize straight away that the movie is more than just a psychological thriller/noir set in the ’50s, that it’s not just an island with a mental hospital and that you are about to witness more than just an investigation. Although you fail to notice it on the first viewing these opening movie scenes lead the spectator to a journey into a human mind destroyed by madness and hiding a terrible secret.

You can’t truly understand the magnitude of this movie and script by Laeta Kalogridis (showrunner of Altered Carbon) based on the 2003 homonymous novel by Dennis Lehane until you watch it for the second time and you grasp the significance of all the strange behaviours of the characters surrounding our protagonist Edward Daniels (an excellent Leonardo Di Caprio) and you realize that it would have sufficed a little extra attention to discover the truth about this movie during the first half an hour. Because there is a trick somewhere and you can see it: it’s a farce, a game, a therapy; and Dr. Cawley’s conversation (Ben Kingsley) with Daniels/Di Caprio at the thirtieth minute, explaining his revolutionary working method with asylum patients which is based on giving them confidence and on totally supporting them in their path to self-awareness about the crimes committed in the hope of getting them healed and prevent the inhuman punishment of lobotomy, makes that clear. That exact moment when we start connecting the dots we realize the solution to the mystery may not be related to the recent disappearance of the missing patient Rachel Solando but there is something much bigger that leads to Daniels instead: the trouble is we just don’t pay attention, too distracted by the cinematic mechanism, falling into Scorsese’s, Kalogridis’ and Lehane’s trap during the remaining 105 minutes of the movie and losing ourselves in that island with no escape which is the terrifying representation of a disturbed mind.

Let’s arrange the following key elements in chronological order. Andrew Laeddis is not an evil person but rather a loser whose bad decisions have taken everything away from him: after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp Leaddis fails to overcome the trauma caused by the horrors of the death camp and he returns to civilian life as a special agent turning to alcohol to drown out his sorrows. His wife Dolores suffers from a mental illness and she has set fire to their home but he wouldn’t listen to reason: he refuses any medical treatment and they move to a lake house with their three children. And then one day coming back home he finds his wife wet from head to toe in a state of confusion and when he finally asks her where the kids are she replys with a vague “at school”. Unfortunately it’s Saturday and his wife just drowned their little children in the lake. In a brief moment of lucidity Dolores begs Andrew to set her free but he kills her with a shot in the stomach. Although this heartbreaking scene is the prelude of events to come it is placed in the pre-ending of the movie. From that moment on Laeddis suffers a devastating collapse that leads him to create a new fictional identity as Edward Daniels (anagram of Andrew Laeddis), a widower and childless special agent whose wife has died in a house fire caused by a pyromaniac actually named Andrew Laeddis. It’s easy to understand the phenomenon of dissociation taking place in the protagonist’s mind to conceal the feeling of guilt that is eating him up: Andrew Laeddis is considered as the monster responsible for the death of his beloved wife – the beautiful scene of the meeting with the mental projection of the “pyromaniac” Laeddis, alias Elias Koteas, resembling Robert De Niro in Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh – who continues to haunt him in hallucinations and dreams.

Dreams are like traumas. Thanks to the great Max Von Sydow – probably a former Nazi scientist – we discover the key to understanding the movie: traum (“dream” in German) has the same origin of trauma (“wound”), and Shutter Island is a film about traumas, soul wounds and dreams. Confined to ward C at Ashecliffe mental hospital due to his behaviour – he is the most violent patient of the island – Laddies/Daniels’ persistent mental breakdowns encourage him to escape reality: after meeting with another patient, George Noyce, his mind elaborates an absurd theory according to which – we remind you that he thinks he is a special agent visiting the asylum for an investigation – he would be involved in a conspiracy organized by the Institute’s doctors performing brutal brain experiments on patients – who would ever believe them if they are insane? – to take advantage of that in the Cold War.

There is no doubt that such traumatic events in Laeddis’ life – the war, the discovery of the extermination camp, the death of his beloved wife and children – contribute in some way to the creation of a “parallel world” all within his mind, therefore Dr. Cawley – in the movie’s backstory – makes a last desperate attempt to bring him to his senses before the drastic procedure of the lobotomy and he indulges Laeddis’ delirium – the asylum’s patient number 67 – staging an impressive role play according to which he is a real agent visiting the asylum – and the psychiatrist performs the role of his fellow investigator – in search of a patient vanished into thin air as well as the murderer of his wife and the evidence of a fictional conspiracy.

The missing woman and war widow Rachel Solando – an anagram of Dolores Chanal, the maiden name of Laeddis’s wife – would have been hospitalized after having brutally murdered her children and having completely dissociated herself from the fact, and there is no doubt this is another of Laeddis’ mental projections capable of erasing the memory of his wife’s actions.

A note found in Solando’s room which says “The law of 4. Who is the 67?” is the key to solving the mystery: the law of the 4 is the multiple personality mechanism developed by the protagonist (Laeddis/Daniels, Chanal/Solando) whereas the 67 is the missing patient, alias Laeddis. Everything else – including the non-existent Dr. Solando engaged in unspecified mental experiments – is nothing but a broken mind’s hallucination. Throughout the film we are witnessing a non-investigation in which it becomes clear that the object of the research will be something shocking.

“You’re not really looking. […] You want to be fooled” the great Michael Caine says in The Prestige by Christopher Nolan and that is exactly what happens to Shutter Island viewers – an excellent example of a visual sleights of hand in a movie – who would like to believe in his conspiracy theory throughout the entire non-investigation of the patient/agent Laeddis/Daniels in spite of how everything around him is clearly shouting the opposite. The key strength of the movie is leading the spectator to believe in certain things while the movie itself clearly shows a faux reality. There is no happy ending: regaining consciousness after the revelation in the lighthouse scene Laeddis pretends – as you can tell from Di Caprio’s acting – to have relapsed into a dissociative disorder mechanism so he gives him up spontaneously to the asylum’s guards for the lobotomy asking to his psychiatrist which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man.

A terrible story that the director stages with impeccable and poignant sharpness – a textbook sequence of dreams and hallucinations: this great movie is wrongly considered as a defective product of Scorsese’s filmography because it englobes the director’s obsessions all rolled into one and pushed beyond his comfort zone. The protagonist, for example, is one of his beloved losers not too different from Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin – they look pretty similar, indeed – the horrors of war have created a monster (Taxi Driver); the atmosphere you feel is that of a small great tragedy whose protagonist is destined to pay dearly for his mistakes (Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street) but everything happens in a completely oneiric and surreal atmosphere which is somewhat unusual for the director – if we exclude the hidden gem After Hours with a totally different mood and the rather inferior Cape Fear – yet deeply indebted to his beloved noir of the 1940s – especially Cat People (1942).

A movie that anyone who claims to love cinema should watch several times: the first to be fooled, the second to realize that it makes sense, and the others to enjoy a cinema experience making us capable of feeling good and bad at the same time.

Article translated from here by Sara D’Ettorre

Rating: 4.3/5. From 3 votes.
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