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"You're Just A Rat In A Maze": Shutter Island (2010) Film Analysis

Updated on January 14, 2011
"Pull yourself together Teddy..."
"Pull yourself together Teddy..."

People and places haunt you....even in your mind.


From the very opening sequence, filled with a loud, thunderous score, we are given the immediate notion that something is awry. We follow through a sequence containing several armed guards, electrified fences and reinforced brick walls. For U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), this entrance isn't necessairly unfamiliar territory. The duo have been assigned to Ashcliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando. As the head of the hospital, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), notes, "It's as if she evaporated through the walls." Teddy's refusal to be outsmarted lends him the suspicion that something bigger is going on. As he attempts to dig deeper into hospital records, a storm - and subsequent power outage - forces him to remain on the island, where his partner, his assignment, his past and his sanity are also forced into question.

The audience channels through all emotional and psychological levels alongside Teddy, also trying to uncover the truth...

From Teddy's (and our) perspective, he is Teddy Daniels...a federal marshal for the government. At first glance, there is nothing to suspect otherwise. But not all is as it seems on the island nor with him. As we soon learn, Teddy's true intentions for obtaining assignment to the island is due in part to a patient named Laeddis (Elias Koteas) alledgedly sentenced to Ashcliffe for killing his wife in an arson. Let the suspicions intensify! Add in several horrorous flashback of time as a soldier during WWII and the layers of Teddy's psyche begin to unravel. His wife is always ever-present, even if she's just another ghostly vision only there to remind him to find Laeddis. The question arises to determine which of these fragments of images are manifested from actual memories or hallucinations? However, the investigation unearths more. The hospital is comprised of a shady cast of doctors and nurses, including Cawley himself, who appear reluctant to divulge full truths (or at least, aren't giving out all the information they have). Much like Teddy, we too are posing questions to ourselves about his psychological state as much as Dr. Cawley's intentions. This is made overly apparent throughout, further deepening the mystery for the marshals as well as the audience. What is really going on?

Teddy has to "get off this rock."
Teddy has to "get off this rock."

Who is patient 67?

The end 'twist' has divided viewers as to whether answers support - or disprove - Teddy's true reality as an actual patient at the hospital (patient 67). The notion that his investigation and all ensuing actions were staged as part of a massive rehabilitation therapy serves difficult to digest for Teddy. For the audience, not so much. In actuality, or at least the one we are told by the doctors at Ashcliffe, his real name is Andrew Laeddis and he killed his wife for drowning their three children in a lake. Due to his post-traumatic stress from time at war and overindulgence in alcohol afterward, Andrew neglected to see any sign of his wife's own psychological undoing. In order to block out the tragedy and stress of these events, Andrew created Teddy. What Andrew believed....was all in his head. After all the mystery, answers are suddenly laid out nice and neat. Dr. Cawley's motives are no longer seen as deceptive, but rationally constructed due to the dire situation at hand for Andrew. As the story goes, he had not been responding to standard treatments and risked a lobotomy operation if he did not show significant improvements. Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan simply turned the island into a playstage for Andrew to act out his fantasy as Teddy. The hallucinations were not resulting from the 'pills' Dr. Cawley gave him, but more so from the same psychotropic medications wearing off. The intention was not merely to awaken Andrew to the reality he truly faces, but also must come to terms with.

We, the audience, have been questioning the film's content up until this point....why should we suddenly discontinue?

Earlier, while searching Ward C for Laeddis, Teddy finds George Noyce (Jackie Earle Hayley), a former soldier-friend from the war. Noyce is a patient at Ashcliffe, looking badly beaten and scarred. He provides Teddy with major clues as to the nature of the island and its inhabitants. Noyce tells him he must "let her go", pointing to the hallucinations of his wife. Basically almost all but giving away the 'game' that Teddy is unknowingly participating in. But, how much credibility can be shown to Noyce? We must examine what we know. He himself is a patient at the hospital, locked away in a ward. How could he possibly know these vital pieces of information? How does he know Teddy sees visions of his wife? Is he simply another hallucination?

Another important key to attempt proving Andrew's potential reality as Teddy comes through the 'real' Rachel Solando. Discovered hiding in a cave, she is a former nurse at the hospital who has suspicions of her own. Those suspicions don't fall onto Teddy nor his investigation, but on the hospital and the personnel running it. Her knowledge of the hospital is extensive: being run by hiding German Nazi's, people being given psychotropic drugs through their food, water and medication. Sans the brain operating, Rachel's insight invokes the possibility that there is less to question about Teddy and more with the operation itself. Again, like Noyce, we cannot help but also examine Rachel Solando. Is her existence imbedded in reality or in Teddy's imagination?

As many critics and audiences have pointed out, much of the film is left ambiguously for interpretational purposes...

There are many great discussions across the web that support or disprove whether Teddy/Andrew is sane or insane. The majority of supporting evidence, in a straightforward sense, would lean towards the insane theory (summed up by the doctors explanations). Teddy utters the last line, "This place makes me wonder: which would be as a monster or dying as a good man?" He immediately stands and walks carefully towards the guards and doctors awaiting him. There is no great effort necessary to get his compliance. Many believe this line to be a delusional admittance of his reality as Andrew. Whether Teddy believes he is who the doctors say he is seems irrelevant. He recognizes the broken person who has emerged from these many traumatic events (aside from questioning whether he is a committed patient as a result from them too). He'd rather have the operation, risking death, in order to remove himself from the ever-present guilt and regret of his current life. That much we know to be absolute truth. Perhaps Teddy knows that he can no longer go on living as Teddy and must "die" with hope of coming out as Andrew (or anyone else).

While not necessairly original, Scorsese does manage to create a B-movie masterpiece that offers more questions than answers.

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese's latest film is both an excersize and exploration of the mind, much like Hitchcock's masterpiece 'Vertigo' before him (to which, I believe, he pays full homage).  More specifically, the difficulty for troubled minds to distinguish reality from illusion and fact from fiction. This is a personal project by a skilled director with an agenda. Scorsese clearly wears many influences on his sleeve ('Vertigo' in particular), sometimes appearing regurgitative, but not without an air of personal nods (Teddy running up a spiral staircase in the lighthouse, much like Scottie in 'Vertigo' similarily ascending the church tower, for example). He has always been a character-driven director. The psychological landscape he paints across the screen possesses beautiful overtones of trauma, guilt, regret, loss, death, and ultimately, life. Like 'Vertigo', 'Shutter Island' is a period piece with many classic signs of film noir, sans the femme fatale (unless of course you consider Teddy's wife to be a hybrid of sorts). Scorsese even turns a gloomy, decrepit hospital and island into characters as much as the people within them.

Perhaps those who were critical of Scorsese's use of the predictable twist have missed the point. After all, sometimes a film is simply about the journey, not the destinations. By inserting the audience into the character - and mind - of Teddy, we join the illusionary ride in which we, like Teddy, attempt to discover what is real and what is not. Scorsese has made it nearly impossible to do so, at least in only one viewing. As the analysis title suggests, the audience is as much "a rat in a maze".


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    • Ewent profile image

      Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker 

      3 years ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      When it comes to writing any story, if it doesn't have insight, it doesn't get much attention. This movie has always fascinated me. More of the fascination had to do with the psychology behind the plot.

    • Stevennix2001 profile image

      Steven Escareno 

      7 years ago

      I have to say out of all the reviews that I've read about this movie, I think you probably gave the most complete analysis of the entire film. I can't say I disagree with any of your points on this movie, as it does seem like Scorsese always manages to come up with compelling character driven stories; ala "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull" and others. Anyways, thanks for the great read, as I'll definitely be sure to rate this one up!


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