Shutter Island: Masterpiece or Dud?

Sean Macaulay referees the online brawl over Martin Scorsese’s thriller—and gives his verdict on the twist ending.

02.25.10 10:36 PM ET

The rabid debate on health-care reform can take a well-earned break because a new topic has arrived to polarize the nation: the Gothic-horror soup that is Shutter Island.

Martin Scorsese's fervid adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel, which has topped the box office in its first two weeks, grossing $75 million, has sparked the widest range of opinion I've seen since Eyes Wide Shut.

Rolling Stone says “no one who lives and breathes movies would dream of missing it,” while The Washington Post damns it as " incomprehensible.” The Los Angeles Times swoons that "Scorsese has given us a new noir classic" while the Christian Science Monitor laments, "It’s the kind of bad movie only very talented people could make."

Refuting crazy theories about Shutter Island is like arguing with people who claim the U.S. government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The polarity of opinion only gets more pronounced when the focus shifts to the meaning of the ending. (SPOILER ALERT. If don't want the big twist revealed, stop reading. Then again, if you haven't seen the film, none of this will make much sense anyway.)

The spine of the story is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels' visit to Shutter Island in 1954 to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an asylum inmate. We learn his wife died in a fire and the arsonist who killed her, Andrew Laeddis, is on the island. But Daniels has forsworn any vengeance. Instead, he wants to uncover a conspiracy of psychotropic drug experiments. By the end of the story, with his sanity fractured by endless nightmares and visions, he is told by the head of asylum (Ben Kingsley) that the investigation is merely a huge role-play exercise to force Daniels to reality. Daniels is in fact Laeddis and killed his own wife after she drowned their three children. Daniels is the alter ego he created to deal with the guilt.

The final scenes have Laeddis accepting the truth (or possibly fiction, see below) of this version, and then succumbing meekly to a lobotomy. The variety of interpretations is all a piece of parlor-game etiquette given the story's deliberate use of red herrings and cryptic flashbacks and anagrams. Even the title of the film is an anagram of “Truths Denials.” Here then are the three most popular interpretations battling it out online:

  1. The Conspiracy Theory

    Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is sane at the start but driven insane by the asylum to prevent him from uncovering their experiments.

  2. The Rat in a Maze Theory

    Teddy Daniels is insane at the start and simply driven more insane by the asylum as part of their experiments.

  3. The Ben Kingsley Is Telling the Truth Theory

    Teddy Daniels is insane, gets sane at the end, finds he can't handle his guilt, fakes a relapse in order to get a lobotomy and find some peace.

The first two theories are so wildly off, in my opinion, that refuting them is like arguing with people who claim the U.S. government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. They have also created a Wag the Dog-style distraction from the more glaring issue of the story's premise, which gets more and more ludicrous under close examination. It requires that we believe the head of an asylum would stage a vast, costly, super-complicated role-play exercise to cure one patient. An exercise that is timed to coincide with a hurricane, no less.

Let me just say, being a Scorsese nut I enjoyed the movie plenty. I even found a meta-analysis approach to satisfy the movie geek in me: Just as the hero's dreams and visions propel him emotionally to solve the puzzle of his repressed backstory, so Scorsese's homages and movie references burn through his imagination like celluloid spirits from his memory. I counted five Hitchcock references alone, including the over-the-revolver shot in Spellbound, and the overhead shot and canted angles from the office storm scene in Marnie.

However, when it comes to the logic of plot, I can only invoke the down-to-earth viewpoint of Eddie Izzard's standup routine on how singer Gerry Dorsey acquired his stage name of Engelbert Humperdinck. "His managers said, 'We're going to change your name, Gerry. It's the name that's the problem. We're going to call you Engelbert Humperdinck.' [Pause.] I just wanted to be in the room when they were working that one through! 'Zingelbert Bempdack... Yingybert Danglebaum... Winglebert Humptyback...'"

Similarly, I would have loved to have been in the room when Kingsley's asylum head came up with his role-play exercise. "OK, everybody, here's the plan. I want to cure one single patient by having the whole island pretend he is here to investigate a missing woman. I will get nurses to pretend to be grief-stricken patients with Oscar-winning conviction. I will send all the guards out into the freezing wind to search for a woman who doesn't exist. And we're going to do this during a massive hurricane, just so we will have a good excuse for having no phone lines and no ferry off the island. Yes, the electricity will be cut off to send our institution into complete chaos, but that's no big deal because I'm only giving free rein to our most violent and deluded patient, the man who stabbed a fellow patient through both cheeks..."

At the end, Daniels/Laeddis is only shaken out of his denial when he is shown photos of his dead children. The same faces of the children that haunt his dreams. I hate to be a spoilsport, but why couldn't they just have filmed him when he was being violent as Laeddis, then shown him the footage?

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Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.