Shutter Island Review

Published 5 years ago by , Updated February 20th, 2010 at 2:57 pm,

Shutter Island is a surprising, flawed, gorgeous and interesting movie that you definitely need to see at least twice.

shutter island review Shutter Island Review

Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw reviews Shutter Island

This is one of those reviews where I feel totally chained by the NO SPOILER rule. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island without discussing the film in its entirety. Shutter Island isn’t one of those simple “love it” or “hate it” movie experiences – this is one of those films that makes you go, “Hmmmm…”

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, a hard-ass cop who gets called out to a remote psychiatric ward off the New England shore (I’ll let you guess the name of the island). It’s a facility where dangerous maniacs are subjected to unique “treatments” by the questionable Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his loyal staff of physicians, nurses and heavily armed corrections officers.

Teddy arrives on Shutter Island (seasick no less) with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), determined to get to the bottom of a case involving a female inmate  named Rachel Solando, who vanished from her cell without a trace. Rachel is unstable and dangerous: she was sent to the Island after murdering her three children and arranging them around the dinner table for her husband to find.

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Ben Kingsley and Leo DiCaprio in a scene from 'Shutter Island'

Teddy and Chuck start asking questions, but they don’t get answers. Nobody on the island seems to want to talk – not the staff, not the patients, and certainly not Dr. Cawley and his cunning partner, Dr. Naehring (the brilliant Max von Sydow). Certain staff are conveniently “on vacation,” when the Marshals arrive to talk with them, important records are being kept confidential, and Teddy and Chuck – two WWII vets who know the face of true evil – soon begin to wonder about the mess they’ve stumbled into.

As the two Marshals dig deeper, Teddy begins to come apart; He starts having crazy dreams soon after Dr. Cawley feeds him some “Aspirin,” and those dreams soon turn into waking hallucinations of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who was killed in an arson fire a few years back. As his mind starts slipping, Teddy realizes that Dr. Cawley and his island may be a trap he has foolishly stumbled into. Trusting no one but his partner and himself, Teddy sets off to kick down the locked doors of the Island and discover the truth.

Shutter Island is based on the novel of the same name by author Dennis Lehane, who is best known for his Boston area mystery/dramas, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Unlike those other two books, however, Shutter Island is a psychological drama that is far deeper and more complex. The clear challenge facing screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis was how to take all the psychological components of the story and balance them with the pulp mystery narrative that most viewers are expecting.

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While the script managed to strike a good balance on paper, I don’t think Scorsese was that fortunate in translating it to the screen. First, let me say that Shutter Island is one of the most visually rich Scorsese films that I’ve seen since Raging Bull. The photography and cinematography are simply gorgeous and the dream/hallucinations sequences (which can be so lame when executed poorly) are some of the most striking I’ve seen in awhile. There are also plenty of Easter-egg references to pulpy B-movies of the past – a nice bit of extra for fans familiar with the genre.

However, Shutter Island definitely stumbles in the editing department. The transitions between “the real” and “the surreal” are clunky and often awkward, especially as the mystery unwinds in the second and third acts. The nature of the story and the heavy psychological components also affect the pacing; even though the writer and director never lose sight of where they’re going, the film itself will ultimately feel that way to a first-time viewer. It’s a necessary evil though, and I don’t really see how the filmmakers could’ve done it any other way. It’s a hard story to tell on film.

The actors faced similar challenges. DiCaprio, Kingsley and Ruffalo in particular had a tough time of it, faced with the task of turning in multi-layered performances of depths they probably weren’t expecting until they actually got on set and started filming. The entire ensemble pulls through pretty well (DiCaprio does some heavy lifting performance-wise) – although I definitely need to see the film again, knowing how it ends, and watch the performances with a closer eye.

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There are some great cameos, including an appearance by Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine as Shutter Island’s violent warden; Jackie Earle Haley as a distraught inmate; and Patricia Clarkson even shows up for a brief moment as a mysterious woman living on the island. Michelle Williams probably turns in the best performance of all as Teddy’s murdered wife, even though she only appears in the most surreal moments of the movie.

Ultimately Shutter Island is an interesting departure for Scorsese. And while the end result isn’t perfect, the fact that the film was crafted by one of cinema’s greatest directors elevates it far above the hokey B-movie-with-a-twist that it could’ve been. Personally speaking, I’m one of those movie lovers who appreciates a film that makes me want to watch it again as soon as the end credits have rolled – and Shutter Island is definitely that. I’m already looking forward to my second visit.

If you want to talk about the film in detail without worrying about spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it, head over to our Shutter Island spoilers discussion.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

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  1. Ok. He was totally insane and fabricated the whole thing.
    Look at the signs. If you watch the beginning, sign number one… his cigs go missing on the ferry to the island. His partner then offers one of his smokes.
    Sign number two. His partner had trouble taking his gun out of the holster… now would a man of experience have to struggle with removing his gun when asked by the guards? Shall I move on to sign number 3… and 4…

  2. I have one question? If that was all a test then why oh why did the doctor make that poor guard stand watch on the island to get his butt wooped by decaprio?? I'm guessing that guard must have made his coffe wrong or something because there was no reason for him there heh.

  3. Yes, realistically, he could sue for having been placed in that position as part of his job, but it's a movie, the way it's explained in the movie is that he was there so the whole charade would be believable. Since the lighthouse was supposed to be important in his role playing, they couldn't have it completely unguarded, or that would make it kind of fishy.

  4. Did anyone else find that scene in the apartment building where he's holding his wife and she's slowly burning away and she's saying “You have to let me go” part really really depressing?? I don't know if it was maybe the music, the scene, or a combination of it all, but it really worked, I felt like really depressed watching that scene, lol. I think it was good acting on Leo and Ms. Williams' part that made a lot of those emotional scenes work, because I really felt the love between them and that he didn't want to let her go even though he probably knows it's all a hallucination…

    You know, the movie probably deserves a 4 or better, especially if it evokes so much discussion and thought about it even after you're done watching it… :-)

  5. Yeah I agree about the movie deserving a 4 or better. When was the last time a movie evoked this much discussion? The spoilers thread is in the thousands lol.

  6. When he finally accepts in his head what he has done, he decides that he would rather have the labotamy and forget rather than living another day with the guilt of what he has done. Great film but definetly has to be seen twice.

    • Completely agree.

  7. The film is “bright and gorgeous” to look at, which is unusual for a suspense thriller. Scorcese makes up for this with ridiculous music at the beginning. No one seems to have commented that Leo doesn't seem to change his facial expression during the course of the film. I thought the observation that the editing was “clunky” was interesting. I would have rated it 2 1/2.

  8. I loved it just seen it and I love how they leave it a cliff hanger at the end. I'm studying Psychology and I figured this film out from the beginning. Basically there are two sides to every story and it makes you think about the whole thing. I don't want to say much about it because I don't want to give it away. But it was brilliant. At least I think so any-way.

  9. I believe that DiCaprio wasn't crazy. You guys have to watch the movie twice to realize that because you will see the little details which will prove to you that he wasn't crazy. In the end he says “To live as a monster or die as a good man” Meaning that he had a plan to fight back and not allow the Dr to experiment on him and that he's rather die by being shot than having an ice pick drilled in his eyes…

  10. was he crazy the whole time and imaging it, or was he being brain washed to make him belive that he was crazy.

  11. This film is just brilliant. There's so many different views you can take on this movie. I'd rate it above The Departed but thats just my own opinion.

  12. Thanks for the review, I agree with most of it, however, I feel as though some of the best cinematography in the film emerges when The transitions between “the real” and “the surreal” occur. You mentioned 'Clunky' negatively, where as I feel this awkward method was adopted on purpose and works very well in leading and sometimes fooling those watching the film.

  13. I actually find it annoying when people focus so much on working out the twists and get disappointing by a film they figured out before the end!! For goodness-sake just watch the damn film and enjoy the twists! your mind will naturally figure things out but don't sit there racking your brain throughout the movies just so you can ruin it for yourself.

  14. beside the story as the container ,the idea being carried by,seems to be idealogic.just think of the related symbols like :lighthouse and its function,deleting annoying memories from the humans' memory,world war 2 and the crimes commited by those who started it specifically against…..,war humanitarian aftermaths etc.

    • what?

    • Ha, that’s what I concluded, too, after pondering for a while. I left two posts in the other thread (aka “spoiler review”) elaborating on some of the points you brought up here.

  15. I'm sharing my opinion regarding some of the scenes in the movie:
    1.) when they arrived at shutter island, all the guards seem to be in red alert. – that's because they know he is a patient… the most dangerous patient in fact.
    2.) when they were asked to surrender their firearms, his partner “Chuck” didn't seem to know how to get his gun off (when he's supposedly a U.S. marshall) – it's because he's not. he IS “Teddy”'s psychiatrist, so it's just understandable that he doesn't know how to handle a gun.
    3.) when Dolores always tells Teddy that “Andrew Laeddis is still here. You need to kill him.” – that just means that deep inside Teddy's head, he still feels he is Andrew. And he'd do anything not to be Andrew. That's why he needs to “kill” him… or to more accurately say it, to FORGET him.
    4.) when Teddy speaks with George Noyce and George tells him “This is a game. This is all about you.” – he's practically telling him the whole situation. It's all just a role-play. They are all acting out their part in Teddy's fantasy world.
    5.) Teddy's conversation with the so called real Rachel Solando (the woman in the cave) – this was just one of his hallucinations. when Rachel talked about the lobotomy procedure, this just means that “Teddy” himself knew about this procedure. He is aware that it exists, and he knows the effects of this.

    and then of course we know what happened in the lighthouse. he is in fact insane, and was the 67th patient of AshCliffe. he's the most dangerous patient that they had. The role-play drama is all about making him realize that his fantasy world could not possibly be.

    the law of 4 – the 4 names which are annagrams

    The role-play did work. He was cured. He became sane. He now realizes that he IS Andrew, the monster who killed his wife and who lost his children. That's why at the end of the movie, he said “Which is worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man.”, he chose to die as a good man. He pretended to regress to being “Teddy” – the U.S. marshall who lost his wife in a fire accident. “Teddy” is in fact the good man. He chose to go through the lobotomy, where his memory of his past will be erased. no more guilt nor pain. thus, he'll eventually die as a “good man”.

    • Well said friend. Exactly what I was thinking.

    • i must say to that u did some brilliant observation specially the one in which chuck had difficulties taking off his gun…

  16. wrong. he was insane the whole time he thought he's a U.S. marshall. The only time he became sane was when he accepted that he is indeed Andrew Laeddis. He just made up Edward Daniels and Rachel Solando. From the lighthouse scene until the end of the movie, he's already sane. By pretending to regress to being crazy again, he allowed the doctors to perform lobotomy on him. this is the option he chose, because he can't live and deal with the fact that he killed his wife because she killed their children. Through lobotomy, his memories of all these traumatic experiences will be erased. thus, no more guilt. he won't think of himself as a “monster” anymore.

  17. hey guys, i 've downloaded the movie like 2 weeks ago, and finally i had the chance to see this movie, actually i watched three tyms, but i didnt get the end of the movie, i felt so confused and anger coz i dont wana believe that he actually killed his wife, i think they conviniced him to believe this but this is not true. therefore wana know if he is really a murderer or it is just coz of the surgery that they 've done it to him ???? also wana know what he meant by saying ” good man and moster” oh gush! i'm so confused although i've seen it three times, waiting ur replys guys.

  18. I don't think anyone will help you since you downloaded it.

  19. Proof that downloading movies illegally makes you dumb, lol.

  20. I’m often conscious of the tricks our mind can play on us and how we can sometimes become confused between reality and fantasy / imagination. small wonder it seems as we are yet to fully work out how the brain differentiates between the two! however, if i needed any reminding of this fact, the film ‘shutter island’ (2010) illustrated it very well.

    martin scorsese’s latest venture, set in ‘a water-bound mental hospital housing the criminally insane’ (, was in my view a hopelessly sensational and ludicrously contrived film with more twists and turns than one could keep track of. it eventually left you feeling potentially unsure of anything in life let alone the film, which could have been unnerving if you hadn’t walked out of the cinema or felt beyond caring by that point.

    not exactly in the realm of ‘the usual suspects’ or ‘the sixth sense’ where you didn’t quite know what to expect or what was coming but at least it all came together in the end and the audience didn’t feel quite so hopelessly and deliberately manipulated…

    • very true.

      the “reality” is this is not really a good movie.
      o well acted and it looks great but, like you said the movie must give up its truth.

      i didnt get the feeling of being unsure about anything and this movie didnt manipulate me into believing anything.
      in fact once exposed i accepted he was insane as the only possible point to the movie.

      allowing the final line to undermine the rest of the movie was very poorly done.

      it takes away any integrity the movie had and throws it all away.

      • You’d enjoy it more probably if you put your mind to rest and dont think too much while watching it. I wasn’t sure what to think at the end, sane or insane. Later when i thought about it i realised he was insane, but i didn’t think about it while watching, allowing the movie to fool me, and that made my viewing experience much more enjoyable.

  21. The Movie was Great, But I was expecting something like Silence of the Lamb…Serial killers and that stuff. The photography was beautiful. I am going to watch it again, and pay attention to those little details

  22. the film was good…but the at end the more clarity is needed..

  23. What a movie. One of the few movies that actually got better after the first hour. Scorcese deliberately invites discussion and confusion as to whether he IS or ISN’T.

  24. I am totally angry after that ending. However, I am watching it again and I am “getting” it. I love the move, suspenseful, creepy, just a great watch. I personally do not think he was crazy. If you notice, on the ship his cigarettes went mysteriously missing and his “partner” gave him one. Then, not long afterwards he had a headache. The longer he was on the island the more severe his dillusions and headaches became. I think they got away with “making him crazy”. He knew he would never leave the island so he gave in to his fate, tired of the mental anguish he’d been dealing with. That’s just my take on it for what it’s worth.

    • i agree with you i think taht he wasn’t crazy and he was that 67 patient

  25. dude ths movie is like killer or something

  26. Ok, first of, it was a fantastic movie. The things that really stood out to me were that at the beggining, in the ship there are handcuffs shackled to the top. Also, when he is with the guards lookin at the lighthouse for the first time, the guards are cocking there guns and looking eerily at him. When the patient who murders her husband is being “interviewed”, she sends Edwards assistant for a glass of water, she writes run on the paper, suggesting that because he is gone, he should run and try to escape. Finally, when he is in ward C, the college kid that was released and then returned back to Shutter island is talking to him, he says “you did this to me”. He says this because he is Andrew latus and he lit a fire that nearly killed him.

    • I saw the movie last night for the first time and was convinced that Teddy was sane. I decided to watch it agian just to make sure I hadn’t missed any details. To my surprise, I changed my opinion about Teddy’s sanity and realized that he was indeed insane. However, the movie is still haunting me and I keep analyzing the details. I can’t find peace within myself as to what the author tried to convey. I have been reading the reviews and realized that the viewers’ opinions are divided, and I am CONFUSED. Both sides have convincing arguments. I didn’t notice what you saw at the beginning on the ship – the handcuffs. I already sent the movie back, but I will definitely check it out. Anyway, I have decided to read the book to make up my mind about Teddy.

      • This movie is not as original as it may seem. Watch “Angel Heart”, “Jacobs Ladder”, and “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest” back-to-back-to back and you will understand. “Angel Heart” and “Jacobs Ladder” each being extremely creepy, seem to serve as the underlying basis for the movie and the “horror” of OFOTCN relates to the ending. Unlike others, I think the ending remains ambiguous. If you watch Manchurian Candidate, you could imagine that the bad guys are the doctors. If you watch Angel Heart, you realize that Teddy is “investigating” the crime he committed. Personally, I think it “plays” either way and the movie really doesn’t commit completely either way. Certainly thought provoking.

      • Hi there-I saw the film Shutter Island on Halloween and I thought it was maybe only a so so film. There is a serious change in direction after LDC character spends the night in the cave which I am not sure I agree with. All in all I found the film disappointing, like MScorcese was sort of resting on his laurels when he was making this film. I think his talent as a filmmaker is a bit exagerated to be honest. LDC is always good and he probably saved this film from being unwatchable. I thought it skirted the unwatchabilty zone a bit though. Anyway, Take Care.




  28. I love Leonardo’s acting in this movie. The concept is very interesting and there are so many things which make you think/question. I particularly like the ending – it’s kinda sad that he chooses to undergo the surgery :(

  29. A pretentious, heavy handed convoluted mish-mash of classic horror motifs, ruining a potentially good story. Hope I don’t wake with a horse’s head beside me but c’mon Scorcese it was a shock to see a director of this calibre laying it on so thick -from the ear-bashing soundtrack to the number of unoriginal scare factors, this movie wasted its talent and doesn’t rate as a winner. The only saving grace was the visual appeal: a great set, excellent period costumes.