Martin Scorsese is arguably the best American filmmaker alive. Through his films, he has often explored the themes of crime and religion. In films like “After Hours” & “The Big Shave,” he used a relatively more experimental approach than usual. On the other hand, with “The Age of Innocence,” he showed his skills in gently handling its subject matter. “Shutter Island” allowed him to sink his teeth into a mind-bending psychological thriller. Some viewers even called it a Nolan film directed by Scorsese – due to Nolan’s fascination for similar themes and storytelling approaches.

Be that as it may, “Shutter Island” is a compelling addition to Scorsese’s widely fascinating filmography. Let’s dive right into the plot and dig deeper into its themes. Spoilers ahead. 

Shutter Island (2010) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

What is ‘Shutter Island’ movie about?

Set in 1954, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” follows US marshal Teddy Daniels who is sent to a mental asylum on a remote island with associate Chuck Aule – to investigate the disappearance of a missing patient. During the investigation, Teddy uncovers a series of shocking truths about this place, which drastically changes his perspective on the case, among other things. The film slowly unpeels the layers of Teddy’s turmoil to reach a conclusion about what happens on the island.

What happens in ‘Shutter Island’?

Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “Shutter Island” begins with Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) & Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) traveling to a remote island. They are partnered together for the first time to investigate the disappearance of murderers who escaped Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Since Teddy is senior to him, Chuck follows his lead to understand his process. Teddy reveals that his wife died in a tragic fire incident in their apartment building. Once they reach the dock, Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) drives them toward the hospital.

Before they enter the facility, McPherson requests to hand over the firearm. Teddy defends the need to carry it but eventually caves in. McPherson warns them that entry to their Ward C is forbidden without the presence of Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy walks through the garden looking at the patients around him. One of them catches his attention and hints him to keep his mouth shut. Soon after, he meets Dr Cawley, who informs him about the complicated history of their asylum. While Cawley advocates a compassionate approach to dealing with his patients, Teddy thinks they deserve no mercy considering their violent past.

Who escaped from the Ashecliffe hospital?

Rachel Solando, one of the patients, escaped Ashecliffe Hospital a few hours before Teddy & Chuck’s arrival. Dr Cawley shares her backstory and notes that she drowned her three children in the lake behind her house. He mentions that she is a war widow who went on with her life after the lake incident as if nothing tragic happened. After hearing this story, Teddy feels slightly dizzy. Dr Cawley continues to state how Rachel constructed a fake reality for herself in the asylum – and believed that the staff members were all deliverymen, milkmen, postal workers, and so on. He shows Rachel’s photo, which suddenly brings images of piles of bodies to Teddy’s mind. But he cannot make heads or tails of it.

What does Teddy learn about Rachel?

Dr. Cawley walks the officers to Rachel’s room to investigate further. Chuck notices the shoes provided by the hospital. They conclude that she couldn’t have climbed without her shoes. Teddy finds a note that says – ‘The Law of 4 – Who is 67?’ He thinks it can lead them to the truth about her disappearance. Despite Dr. Cawley’s lack of cooperation, Teddy joins McPherson in his search for Rachel. McPherson offers crucial details about the hard-to-reach caves on Shutter Island. He also talks about the old lighthouse and mentions that it is used as a sewage maintenance facility.

Teddy questions the staff to know any signs that led to her escape but finds nothing helpful. A nurse says that Rachel was worried about rain. Dr. Cawley notes that Rachel’s assigned doctor is currently on leave. Teddy cannot stand the staff’s blatant disregard toward the case. Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) discusses how they tend to treat violent criminals. This dialogue brings back Teddy’s memories of violence & deaths he witnessed during his past fieldwork. Despite his request, Naehring refuses to show the hospital files about Rachel. It infuriates Teddy even more.

Does Teddy find Rachel Solando?

Teddy suspects someone helped Rachel to escape from her room. While trying to find her, he cannot help but fall back into the painful memories of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died in a tragic fire incident. It reminds him of Andrew Laeddis, who reportedly started the fire that caused her death. In the hospital, Teddy starts questioning the patients about Rachel & sneaks in a question about Andrew Laeddis. Whenever he mentions Andrew’s name, the patients either get scared or start to panic. So, after the interviews, Chuck asks Teddy about Laeddis. After implying its severity, Teddy reveals the truth about him.

Teddy mentions he made sure he gets Rachel’s case so that he could come to the hospital – because he believed Laeddis was also brought there. After the questioning, he starts looking for Laeddis on the island. He opens up to Chuck about his time in the army when he had to inflict violence as a part of his duty. It made him suspect that Laeddis was in Ashecliffe since the institution conducts experiments on the mind. He recalls George Noyce, an ex-socialist with a violent past, who was brought in for similar experiments in Ashecliffe. Even though Teddy is confident about his conspiracy theories, Chuck makes him doubt them.

Does Teddy meet Andrew Laeddis?

Shutter Island (2010) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analyzed
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in Shutter Island (2010)

The hospital staff bring Teddy & Chuck back to the hospital. Despite the staff’s resistance to his queries, Teddy continues digging deeper into the case. He recalls how Dr. Cawley keeps mentioning 66 patients. So, considering the note they found in Rachel’s room, she must be the 67th. Dr. Cawley looks at him like a proud father for solving the riddle. Then, he reveals that Rachel (Emily Mortimer) returned to the hospital while they were away. Teddy meets her and sees that she is getting him confused for someone named Jim. She mentions that she missed him in his absence. The interactions leave him with more questions than answers. More than anything, it unsettles him. It also brings all sorts of visions.

Teddy imagines himself meeting Laeddis (Elias Koteas), followed by images of Rachel drenched in blood, bringing her daughter to a lake. Later, in his dream, Dolores tells him that Laeddis isn’t dead. The next morning, he wakes up to chaos and destruction inside the facility. He walks through the cells of inmates to find George Noyce, with signs of extreme torture. Noyce mentions that Teddy did this to him because of his unhealthy obsession with Laeddis. He notes that Teddy is only part of a game constructed for him. George also makes Teddy question his trust in Chuck & the investigation itself. He tells Teddy to accept that Dolores is dead and to let go of his rooted feelings for her.

Does Teddy enter the caves on Shutter Island?

After his conversation with George Noyce, Teddy starts questioning Chuck’s constant presence around him. He cannot let go of the fact that the staff is not sharing any clear details about the 67th patient. So, he decides to climb up the caves on the island by himself. He reaches there to find a woman inside. After a series of questions, he learns that she is Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson). Unlike what the staff told him, she did not kill her children. In fact, she wasn’t married and never had children. She believes that Ashecliffe plans to use criminally insane patients like her for their benefit.

Shutter Island (2010) Movie Ending Explained:

What really happened in Shutter Island?

After his discussion with Rachel in the cave, Teddy returns to Ashecliffe. He speaks with Dr. Cawley about Noyce & his partner Chuck. Dr. Cawley notes that Noyce is notorious for his stories and that he saw a patient senselessly beating Noyce. On top of that, he confuses Teddy by saying that he came all alone. It starts getting to his head and he imagines the young girl in his visions walking up to Dolores to hold her hands. During his struggle to comprehend these new details, a car catches fire. When the staff starts looking for him, he runs away through the woods. Finally, he manages to enter the lighthouse after beating up one of the police officers. He opens the door to find Dr. Clarke inside. Clarke behaves as if he expected Laeddis to be there.

Who is Andrew Laeddis?

Teddy finally learns the truth about Shutter Island. He is not a marshall sent to investigate a case. Instead, he is one of the patients who made up the 67th patient – Rachel. He was sent there because of his proclivity to violence. His real name is Andrew Laeddis, and Teddy Daniels is an anagram he made up. He beat up Noyce because Noyce called him Laeddis. Chuck is a part of the hospital staff. He stayed with Teddy for his safety. Teddy constructed this reality, which made it difficult for the hospital to learn and accept the truth.

Who killed Dolores? Who killed the three dead kids?

Dolores was a manic-depressive suicidal individual. Teddy/Andrew ignored her anguish and refused to get her the required help. Instead, he stayed away and drank away. He moved to the lake house after she set their city apartment on fire. The three kids were his & Dolores’ children. Dolores killed them by drowning them in a lake behind their cabin. The girl in his visions is his daughter – Rachel. Teddy killed Dolores because she murdered their children. He acknowledged these details about his past. However, even after doing so, he remains in the endless loop where he refuses to believe the truth and constructs a reality for himself.

Shutter Island (2010) Movie Themes Analysed:

Guilt & Grief

By the end of Shutter Island, we realize that Teddy Daniels is a grief-struck man who is brought into a mental asylum after he kills his wife. Teddy feels guilt for killing Dolores but cannot accept that grief is a part of his life. The film highlights these aspects in the third act, where Teddy acknowledges the truth. We see Teddy use an alternate reality as an excuse to deflect from his overbearing guilt.

Mental Illness

Both Teddy & Dolores suffer from mental illnesses. Dolores was a manic-depressive person who did not receive the medical care she needed to get better. Teddy suffers from PTSD that has roots in the war besides the death of his wife & children. Shutter Island serves as a motif for his condition – since his constructed reality is also a place that he can never fully escape from. The film places hints throughout its duration to make Teddy understand the truth. Alas, he might always remain stuck in an endless loop.

Violence

One of the key themes from “Shutter Island” is violence. Teddy’s mental illness originated from senseless bloodshed that he had to witness and/or partake in. Be it in the war or at home, it became his way for every obstacle in his life. The film sheds light on the fatal consequences of violence and how it leads to a life of unending misery.

Read More: Top 10 Films To Watch If You Are A Fan Of Shutter Island (2010)

Trailer:

Shutter Island (2010) Movie Links: IMDb, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
The Cast of Shutter Island (2010) Movie: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer
Shutter Island (2010) Movie Genre:  Mystery & thriller/Drama, Runtime: 2h 18m
Where to watch Shutter Island

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