Friday Night at the Movies: Shutter Island

This movie review comes to us from Travis Greene, well known to those who pay attention to those who comment. Travis blogs as well, and we want to thank him for this review.
And, if you have a review you’d like to publish here, send it along.


Shutter Island Review – Travis Greene


Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and Ben Kingsley, is a psychological thriller that takes place at a mental hospital, on a remote island, in the middle of a hurricane. Those facts alone are probably enough to tell you if you want to see this movie. For me the answer was a clear yes.


DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal who, along with his new partner (Ruffalo), has been sent to an asylum for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a patient there, but finds himself drawn into a much bigger mystery. Scorcese lays the forboding on a little thick during their approach, since the asylum, an abandoned Civil War fort on a barren island, is plenty creepy all on its own. But pairing with DiCaprio yet again works for the veteran director; few actors could be better suited to play the intense Marshal Daniels, driven by his own experience with mental illness and haunted by memories of liberating the concentration camp at Dachau.

The supporting cast is all quite
good as well, including the always-welcome Max von Sydow as a menacing German psychiatrist
(who keeps asking DiCaprio whether he believes in God), as well as Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle
Haley, who steal their single scenes. Kingsley, as usual, is great as the head
psychiatrist who seems to be hiding something.


The visuals around the island and
within the asylum’s walls are quite effective, but some of the flashback scenes
are a bit overwrought. I felt the same way about the score in some places; we
don’t need musical cues to tell us that tiptoeing through the dark cells of a
fortress overrun by lunatics is scary. But the sound design in other places was
excellent, as subtlety and silence can be much more unnerving than even the
most Hitchcockian violins.


Despite a potentially fatal flaw
that will be discussed below, Shutter
is overall a gripping and entertaining thriller with great
performances. Be advised that the film contains intense scenes of violence and
death, including that of children, as well as strong language. It is not a
movie to take your youth group to. But it is a movie that asks provocative
questions about reality that will stick with you for days.


SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this review will discuss specific
plot elements, including the ending. If you haven’t seen the film and would
like to see it unspoiled and form your own opinion (which I recommend), do not
read further.


Still there? Ok.


As I said, I was excited about the mysteries
of Shutter Island, and while the film was entertaining and I’m glad I saw it, I
don’t think it quite stuck the landing. You see, Shutter Island has a twist
ending. And like all “twist ending” movies, if it doesn’t pull off
the twist, it leaves you feeling more cheated than thrilled or amazed. When my
wife and I saw the previews for Shutter Island, I turned to her and said,
“I want to see that, but I hope it doesn’t just end with ‘turns out he was
crazy the whole time!'”


Well, that’s pretty much what
happens. DiCaprio is in fact a patient at the asylum, a former Marshal who is
racked with guilt for killing his wife, and creates the whole scenario of being
there to solve a crime because he can’t face reality. Ben Kingsley’s
psychiatrist character allows DiCaprio full run of the island to “solve
the mystery” in an attempt to force him to realize the truth: there is no
missing patient, and the demons he’s chasing turn out to just be him.


The problem is that a good twist
ending relies on you completely believing the setup before it pulls the
rug out from under you (see: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club). But the island is
such a twisted, reality-warping place seemingly full of conspiracies and
misdirection, and DiCaprio so compellingly plays a man sliding into madness,
that we don’t take anything at face value. We sense a twist coming, and hedge
our bets on who to believe, so when the big reveal comes, it’s the least
interesting scene in the movie. Watching characters standing around a room
explain why “it was all a dream” is a letdown after a tense two hours
of ominous lighthouses, treacherous cliff-climbing, and evil government cabals.


I should note that Shutter Island is
based on the Dennis Lehane book of the same name, which I have not read. It’s
quite possible that with the slow burn and character interiority possible in a
novel the payoff works better than it did for me in the film.


Despite my disappointment with the
film’s central twist, the last few moments almost
made it worth it. DiCaprio does realize and accept the truth of who he is and
what he’s done. Kingsley tells him he has had this breakthrough before, but
that if he regresses again they will have no choice but to lobotomize him. The
film ends with DiCaprio sitting on the steps of the asylum, talking to Ruffalo
(who turns out to actually be his psychiatrist). He has regressed again,
talking as if he is still a Marshal out to catch Kingsley, and the orderlies
are sent to take him away for his lobotomy. But as he happily walks away with
them, he asks Ruffalo, “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good


The questions in the last scene
about reality and fantasy are the most lingering of the film. If madness is
chosen as a defense against reality, is it truly madness? Is it better for some
people to live in fantasy than to go on suffering? DiCaprio will effectively
die, but he will do so (in his own mind) as a good man searching for justice,
rather than to go on living as a murderer. I am somewhat uncomfortably reminded
of the scene, which has always been a favorite of mine, in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair where Puddleglum
declares he’s going to go on living as a Narnian even if there isn’t any
Narnia. Like the similarly themed Pan’s
, Shutter Island seems
to suggest that for some, reality is so harsh that escape through fantasy is
the only way out. It’s like the dark underside of Pascal’s gambit.


But what of confession? DiCaprio’s
character does not seem to seriously consider the possibility of moving forward
in the truth, accepting his own past but also accepting the offered help of the
doctors who genuinely care about him. He lacks the imagination to see a third
option between living as a monster or dying as a good man: accepting the grace
(or in this film, therapy) offered him, and living as a redeemed man. His story
is doubly tragic; he has experienced and done terrible things, but when offered
a way forward, he chooses instead to move backward, effectively ending his life
rather than take up the difficult work of repentance.

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  • Scott Eaton

    I saw this film last weekend. Despite the fact it was very well acted and filmed, filled with suspense, drama, intrigue, intensity, and some fright – this movie left me very unsatisfied. It shouldn’t have been this way. It seemed to have everything going for it. But in the end it left my wife and I feeling rather flat.
    As we walked to the car we both agreed we had just seen an OK movie.
    Rating: Technically sound but unexpectantly disappointing.

  • Cheryl

    We saw the end differently. While, granted, the “he’s really crazy” ending wasn’t that surprising, I believe the real twist is that he did NOT really regress in the end. I believe he was fully aware of what his wife had done to their kids, what he had done to her, and he did not want to live with that truth, and therefore, chose the lobotomy. It was his way of not having to live with anything, neither the pain of his memories (both of Dachau and of his delusion) nor the pain of the truth.

  • Andy

    Travis –
    Really well done with this review. I love that you press further into the movie and take the time to ask what lies behind the film’s question. I confess I had no plans to watch this one, but your review might tempt me into the theater. Again, thanks for the closing musings. You might enjoy the talk on films going on over at
    grace and peace

  • Andy, thanks.
    Cheryl, I agree with your interpretation. That’s what I was trying to get at in the last few paragraphs. I just wish the film had gotten more into the implications of such a choice.
    Scott, I agree. All the pieces were there, and it was entertaining and thought-provoking, but there was something missing.

  • pae

    I think the beauty of the entire movie is you don’t know how to feel and you don’t know which to believe. You are very much in the mind of Leo’s character. Paranoid and stuck between two different things that both could very much be true. I called it very early on. The fact that it didn’t show him anywhere else but the Ferry and the Island. He has experienced Trauma. The Doctor said he does experimental procedures. Patients seemed coached. Just met his partner. And there wasn’t much to the movie unless he was crazy. Frankly, practically from the beginning I just felt that’s the only way it could have been.

  • Trav

    I’m glad I didn’t read this review before seeing the movie. I’d feel pretty cheated… it wouldn’t be the same knowing the ending.
    This was most definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

  • Paul Stewart

    I might be alone on this, but I saw the film COMPLETELY differently… precisely because of the question at the end.
    DiCaprio’s question at the end of the film “”Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” was directed at his psychiatrist/partner. That’s why Ruffalo reacted so suddenly… “WAIT!” It was a question of conviction. He was stating the fact that he would rather die (or be lobotomized) than live in the lie that had been created for him.
    When you think back through the film you realize that DiCaprio lost his cigarettes on the Ferry ride over. Ruffalo gives him his first, which results in a headache, which leads to Asprin from Ben Kingsley. Throughout the film the staff suck DiCaprio into their lie. Convincing him – through the use of drugs, and an elaborately staged hoax, that the painful memories of his past (fatal fire, Dachau, alcoholism, etc.) were really something else.
    A lie that he bought into at the lighthouse in order to avoid being tortured by the evil psychiatrist and warden… but ultimately chose at the end it would be “better to die a good man than to live as a monster.”
    Anyone else see the film that way?

  • Stefanos

    I agree with you my friend, Paul Stewart. I am thinking the exact same things like you do. Di CaCaprio was the person that everybody was trying to change him and let him loose as ghost.

  • reen

    i just watched that movie but seems to be complicated to understand the motive of the story anyway,after reading your explaination about this movie,finally i got what the last sentence totally meant.. 🙂 “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” Thanks to is a challanging psycho story to watch but somehow,i still don’t get it,is the woman in the cave (a doctor)was real or just his imagination?