‘Shutter Island’ Is Martin Scorsese’s Most Biting Exploration of Regret
As “Shutter Island” turns 10, it’s worth looking back at how Martin Scorsese’s beguiling experiment is far more serious than its genre trappings suggest.
Ten Years Later, Looking Back at Scorsese’s Shutter Island
It was supposed to be his horror film. At least, that was the chatter about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island during the lead-up to its release. That was what made the movie’s potential seem so exciting: Scorsese had made some of the best gangster films of all time, had made compelling religious dramas; an anxiety-inducing late-night comedy, and tenderly crafted period dramas, but he hadn’t yet made his horror film. Viewers of his essential A Personal Journey Through American Movies already knew how much he admired and understood the intricacies of horror films like Producer Val Lewton’s Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and Shutter Island was his chance to paint with those influences.
The film Scorsese ultimately delivered was more of a puzzle than the slam-dunk horror picture we’d hoped for. Originally slated for a fall release, it was pushed back to February 2010, a signal that Paramount didn’t envision much of an Oscar future, and they were probably right; Shutter Island boasts one of the lowest Rotten Tomatoes scores of Scorsese’s feature films, surpassed only by the deserving Boxcar Bertha and the severely underrated New York, New York (though it’s still rated “fresh”). Most critics found plenty to praise, but they almost invariably consigned it to “lesser Scorsese.” Though the reviews were only moderately positive on average, Paramount’s decision to push the film back seemed to be a prudent move financially, as the Oscar bait had already been snapped up, allowing Shutter Island to float alone in an undisturbed sea of late-winter releases. Despite its polarizing reception, it’s hard to watch Shutter Island today and not think that some of its initial critics were so determined to publish the snap appraisals that they didn’t fully engage with the movie Scorsese had created.
It’s not accurate to call Shutter Island a horror film, as it lacks any moments of terror and instead is suffused with wall-to-wall dread, something Scorsese had never done to such an extent. He gives a sense of that unending dread with the film’s soundtrack over the brisk opening credits. Classical music lovers and cinephiles might recognize the piece playing as a brief excerpt of György Ligeti’s “Lontano,” which Stanley Kubrick used to great (and more prominent) effect in The Shining. Only a few minutes of its chilling and mysterious string harmonies resonate before we’re introduced to a hulking ship that slowly plows through the ocean fog as if parting a curtain. Scorsese’s regular musical collaborator, Robbie Robertson, selected the soundtrack pieces, and he uses Ingram Marshall’s utterly appropriate “Fog Tropes” to score its approach. The film’s soundtrack was released prior to the movie, which made it possible to bathe myself in its mesmerizing soundscapes without revealing any of the film’s mysteries. Robertson’s assemblage is one of the most striking soundtracks to use contemporary classical music, and it’s clearly indebted to and inspired by Kubrick’s landmark soundtracks for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.
The visual fog recedes, even as the aural fog pervades, and we see US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) splashing water in his face in the ship’s sink. He looks as if he’s been up for two days straight and someone just told him he’ll have to pull another all-nighter. As he tries to get over his seasickness, his eye wanders to dangling chains with manacles, a clue to what he’s about to experience. Daniels is on the ferry to Shutter Island in Boston Harbor, where he’s investigating the disappearance of a patient at the Ashecliffe Hospital, where the criminally insane are kept far away from the mainland. Already on the boat is his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), whom Teddy has (strangely) never met before.
After arriving on the island, the two meet the dandy head psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who always seems to have a pipe in hand. He explains that the missing patient, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), had drowned her three children and thus far has refused to admit that she’s in an insane asylum. But there’s no trace of her, and she couldn’t have gotten far on Shutter Island’s rocky cliffs. As Daniels searches for the missing woman, we get clues about his own tortured past, including traumatic memories of liberating Dachau. He also begins to suffer from increasingly vivid hallucinations about his dead wife (Michelle Williams), who died in a blaze attributed to an arsonist named Andrew Laeddis.
If you haven’t seen this great film in the 10 years since it was released, turn back now and rectify that. After Daniels is separated from his partner and begins to suspect he’s being misled and possibly dosed with psychotropic drugs, he makes his way to a lighthouse where lobotomies are performed, only to discover Dr. Cawley waiting for him. It’s then that he shatters Daniels’ sense of self by revealing that he is Andrew Laeddis, that he has invented Rachel Solando, that his own wife murdered their three children before he shot and killed her in his grief, and that he’s been a patient on the island for the last few years. Cawley illustrates all of this with whiteboards that reveal that the name’s Laeddis has created are anagrams — rearrangements of letters to create a new identity.
Some viewers disdain this climactic scene because of how anti-climactic it dares to be; it brings the action, previously at a fever pitch, to a screeching halt. But Scorsese wisely breaks it up with one of the most devastating scenes in the film: a flashback as the newly revealed Laeddis finally remembers the afternoon he came home to find his children murdered. Michelle Williams, who has been moving up to this point as the spectral figure of his dead wife, is now revealed to be horrifyingly insane. One of the most disturbing moments in a film otherwise suffused with grim dread is when she says they can play with their children like dolls after her grief-stricken husband has fished them out of the lake.
After Laeddis’ revealing flashback, Cawley pleads with him to finally accept his guilt and to acknowledge the crime that has landed him in the asylum. And for a second, it seems as if Laeddis can finally accept what he has done. It seems to put Shutter Island in line with many other Scorsese films, where his main characters are overcome by guilt. Jake LaMotta is overcome by guilt at the way he jealously guards his young wife in Raging Bull, which pushes her even further from him. Newland Archer lives for decades with the guilt over his unfulfilled love in The Age of Innocence, and Casino’s Sam Rothstein is consumed by his guilt at only being able to offer his wife money, rather than real love.
What eats away at Laeddis is something similar, but distinct: regret. The difference is that guilt is what we feel when we do something we know to be wrong. Regret is what we feel when we know we should have acted differently, but didn’t. It’s not healthy to be obsessed with guilt, but it might have helped Laeddis to heal from his psychic trauma. Instead, his carefully constructed narrative is designed to prevent him from having those feelings of guilt. Even when he realizes what he did, it’s a fragmentary understanding that will fade with the rising sun. So many of Scorsese’s characters are shackled by their overwhelming guilt; for Laeddis, it’s the only thing that could have saved him.