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Hollywood Insider Shutter Island Explained, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Guide & Analysis

Photo: ‘Shutter Island’/Paramount Pictures

SPOILER ALERT – This article spills the hidden greatness within ‘Shutter Island,’ watch the film or spoil all of the good stuff by continuing to read. 

Mind Control – “This is a game. All of this is for you.”

Released on February 19, 2010, and directed by Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island’ is a remarkable film dictating the power of mind control within filmography against audiences. Quite literally, the film controls the audience’s minds into seeing and believing what Martin Scorsese wants you to see at that point in time. 

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For the last four years, I have spent my time in film studies classes educating myself on anything and everything film. If anything stuck to me during that time, it is the honor I have for filmmakers who think down to the most minor details. The amount of research and dedication it takes to think of the tiniest aspects in your film that will further it that much more, it blows my mind. ‘Shutter Island’ is one of those films that I am sure there are a hundred more little details I have not even found yet through research or watching a hundred times. Scorsese’s film has all of the little details all the way down to the Parker Jotter pen used by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character.

‘Shutter Island’ Symbolism Techniques

Prior to breaking the film down, here are a few essential symbolism techniques used throughout ‘Shutter Island.’ The symbolism of fire throughout the film represents the fantasy Teddy Daniels a.k.a Andrew Laeddis, has created around himself. All of Teddy’s hallucinations include fire dictating what is not the truth, and when the fire is not present, you can believe that must be the truth. The symbolism of water throughout the film represents the reality of what happened to Teddy’s children after Dolores, Teddy’s wife, drowned them. You will see that Teddy has a consistent aversion to water so much so that his mind will make it disappear. 

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The entire film focuses on Teddy’s delusional role-playing of an investigation that has been going on for the two years he’s been a patient on Shutter Island. All of the staff and patients play into the imagination in order to bring Teddy to realizing who he is and why he is there. All you’ve seen in the film that seems to be a dream are simply glimpses of Teddy’s insanity from his point of view. They appear real because Teddy believes they are. Also important to note the incredible detail in re-wording the characters’ original names into Teddy’s imaginative world. For the article, I will be referring to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as Teddy, as that is the version he most refers to throughout the film. 

The following name re-wordings are used within Teddy’s fictional world – 

Fake Name: Edward “Teddy” Daniels Real Name: Andrew Laeddis

Fake Name: Rachel Solando Real Name: Dolores Chanal  

Fake Name: Chuck Real Name: Dr. Sheehan

With these small details, let’s get into connecting the never-ending dots of hidden deception techniques throughout ‘Shutter Island.’ 

Denying Reality – “You wanna uncover the truth? You gotta let her go.” 

Set in 1954, ‘Shutter Island’ begins with U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who arrives on Shutter Island, a former military prison but now a mental institution. Teddy arrives sea-sick after having made it to the island on a boat, as he would with his trauma, but this is unknown to the audience at this time. Only one of the hundreds of minor deception storylines, cinematography, and acting techniques that Scorsese uses to reveal Teddy’s true identity. 

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Teddy then meets with U.S. Marshal Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), whom he is paired with to investigate the disappearance of murderer Rachel Solando. Rachel is supposedly a patient at the hospital after having murdered her children due to insanity but has disappeared somewhere on the island. But Rachel Solando does not exist. Chuck, as far as we can tell, also does not exist. For the duration of the film, right up to the climax, it’s just staged characters playing into Teddy’s mind tricks. The pair are introduced to Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who appears throughout the film and appears to be the antagonist against the investigation. The entire investigation is all staged by Dr. Crawley to make his most abusive patient at the hospital, Teddy/Andrew Laeddis, remember who he really is.

With a quick tour of the courtyard, a guard requires Chuck to hand over his weapon for the institution’s safety; however, Teddy watches this exchange but is not asked for his gun. At first, and with the handful of times, I watched ‘Shutter Island,’ I never caught onto this small detail. If Teddy is a U.S. Marshal just like Chuck, wouldn’t he have a gun to hand over? But, because he is just a patient, there would not be a single chance for him to have a gun. 

And now, the investigation begins. 

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In one of Teddy’s earlier hallucinations, there is a freeze-frame of Teddy and his wife, the only freeze-frame to occur within the entire film. This single frame contains the whole meaning of ‘Shutter Island,’ dictating Teddy’s wife’s impact on his mental downfall. Scorsese uses freeze frames through most of his films to dictate impact, such as ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Goodfellas.’ When Teddy and Chuck arrive near the seaside to look for Rachel, you notice that not a single guard is rushing to look for her. They are all sitting around scratching their chins, doing practically nothing. Why? Because they know that Rachel Solando does not exist, and this is all an act for Teddy’s sanity. 

Through flashbacks and narration, Teddy’s dark past, filled with trauma and murder, is slowly revealed. The audience is introduced to Teddy’s former life as a WWII soldier who liberated a Nazi concentration camp where he saw death and had to perform murder. The memories of pain, agony, and horror flood his flashbacks. We learn that Teddy’s wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), was supposedly murdered in an apartment fire caused by arson. Teddy is visited by his dead wife, who is inconspicuously dropping clues to the audience through her little visits. 

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With the disappearance of Rachel Solando aside, Teddy uses his time on Shutter Island to find and kill Andrew Laeddis, the man he believes to have killed his wife. Unaware of it at the beginning, Chuck becomes supportive of Teddy’s revenge mission. And if Chuck’s decision to bring revenge against a patient does not make sense for an officer, you would be right because he is just playing along. For Teddy, his mission is to find Laeddis and bring revenge to his wife, but, in fact, and unknown to Teddy, he is Andrew Laeddis. Teddy was the one who murdered his wife after she drowned their three children. This, along with the ghosts of his military past, had eventually made him crazy. Laeddis, the mentally ill patient, cannot accept who he is and what he has become. Then he creates an alter ego, Edward “Teddy” Daniels, to escape from his reality. 

Dr. Crawley must return the true Andrew Laeddis to reality, or the hospital will be closed. Dr. Crawley stages the entire investigation from the abduction of the fake Rachel Solando to having staff and patients role-play along. For his health, Teddy’s real goal is to discover Laeddis’s true identity and the reality of who he is. 

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Role-Play: “Which would be worse – to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” 

One, if not the most crucial scene in the entire film, is when Teddy and Chuck are interviewing an older female patient. When you first watch ‘Shutter Island,’ there is a slim chance you will notice the details I am about to tell you, and honestly, I did not even know them until I researched more about ‘Shutter Island.’ Why? I suppose Scorsese got the better of me after all these years. In the scene, you will notice that there are guards in the background of Teddy and a female patient, Bridget Kearns (Robin Bartlett) scenes; however, there is not a guard behind Chuck.

That is because guards are there to look over patients meaning Teddy and Bridget are ill, and Chuck is a doctor. When Bridget drinks the glass offered to her by Chuck, the glass disappears from Teddy’s point of view. This is because of Teddy’s aversion to water, so the water does not exist through his eyes. When the frame exits Teddy’s POV, we see an empty glass dictating that Bridget drank the water. When Teddy asks her about Dr. Sheehan, she glances at Chuck because she knows he’s Dr. Sheehan. Although she has been told to play along with the investigation, it causes her some distress, to which she scribbles the words “run” in Teddy’s journal. Bridget knows that moment is the only chance for Teddy to escape the mental hospital.

An excellent opportunity to notice the significance of fire dictating reality apart from hallucinations is with Teddy and the patient George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley). The flame of his lighter stays in frame up until the moment George tells the truth to Teddy and says, “This is a game. All of this is for you. You’re not investigating anything. You’re a fucking rat in a maze.”

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The ending, and the reality behind it, are as surprising to Teddy as they are to the audience. In the end, the final line spoken by Teddy is one of the most impactful lines in cinema as he says, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?” Teddy has realized he is the abusive, violent patient named Edward Laeddis, but he has decided to stick with the world he has made for himself. The investigation has brought him to remain with the identity of Edward “Teddy” Daniels. Just before Teddy gets on his feet and walks toward what we know will be a full frontal lobotomy, Chuck replies with a simple “Teddy?” In this single line and with a single word, you know that Andrew Laeddis is Teddy Daniels, and he has chosen to accept his fate.

‘Shutter Island’ is consistently telling us that Teddy is in a fantasy world; however, even after a handful of watches, we ignore reality just as Teddy is. Scorsese uses subtle story hints through symbolism, cinematography, directorial decisions, and acting to tell the audience that Teddy is, in fact, Andrew Laeddis. Although, we truly never know for sure until the moment Teddy realizes it for himself, making ‘Shutter Island’ one, if not the best, cinema plot twist. Ok, maybe The Sixth Senseis the best plot twist, but what can I say? I have many favorites, and I see dead people. It’s incredible to know that we can deny reality even when it is in front of us, and more insane is how we hold onto our truth even if it isn’t.

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Where To Watch ‘Shutter Island’ 

With subscriptions, ‘Shutter Island’ is available to watch on Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, VUDU, fuboTV, and Philo

Where To Find The Stars

While currently filming, Martin Scorsese’s next feature directorial piece is ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ “Members of the Osage tribe in the United States are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the 1920s sparking a major F.B.I. investigation involving J. Edgar Hoover.”

In the post-production process, Leonardo DiCaprio can next be seen in Adam McKay’sDon’t Look Up,’ alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Don’t Look Up,’ “The story of two low-level astronomers, who must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet earth.”

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In the post-production process, Mark Ruffalo can next be seen in Shawn Levy’sThe Adam Project’ alongside Ryan Reynolds, Zoe Saldana, Jennifer Garner, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘The Adam Project,’ “A man must travel back in time to get help from his 13-year-old self.”

In the post-production process, Ben Kingsley can next be seen in Terrence Malick’sThe Way of the Wind’ alongside Aidan Turner, Joseph Fiennes, Mark Rylance, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘The Way of the Wind,’ “A retelling of several episodes in the life of the Christ.”

Expected September 24, 2021, Michelle Williams can next be seen in Andy Serkis’Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ alongside Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, and more. As said on IMDb about ‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage,’ “Plot unknown. Sequel to the 2018 film ‘Venom.’”

By Isabella Brownlee

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