You can see it in his eyes. As U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels ferries his way between Boston Harbor and the black cloud-shrouded Shutter Island on the horizon, it's easy to see that he has more weighing on him than a simple case of green-around-the-gills seasickness. Scruffy and disheveled, the man looks weary beyond his years.
But as he and fellow marshal Chuck Aule are ushered into the fortress-like Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, it seems that his personal baggage will have to be tossed in the backseat for the time being. This facility may be the most advanced of its kind in this modern age of 1954, but its damaged inhabitants are probably the most dangerous group of killers in the world.
Teddy needs to stay sharp.
The case at hand? A deranged patient who murdered her three children has somehow disappeared from a locked and barred room. The marshals have been called to solve this seemingly impossible mystery. But with every clue found, every question asked, and every shifty-eyed obfuscation and false reply given, Teddy becomes convinced that there's more going on here than just a missing woman.
Then a hurricane-force gale blows in, keeping the frustrated marshals locked down on this bleak and ominous rock for days. And the migraines and dreams begin—dreadful visions of war atrocities Teddy experienced years earlier and disquieting visits from the beloved wife he recently lost.
What's happening here? Is he going crazy himself? Or are the jagged shards of some gruesome puzzle slowly coming together? Perhaps a more pressing question might be: Once a good man peeks in on Shutter Island's secrets, will he ever be allowed to leave?
On the surface, Shutter Island appears to simply be a twisting psychological thriller. But by its conclusion, the movie takes some surprising turns that point to the sometimes fragile quality of the mind and spirit of men—and the need to protect them through both actions and relationships. We are also shown mankind's need for good in the face of evil.
Teddy is a troubled soul who wants more than anything to be a good man. As his backstory slowly unfolds, we see that he's had a traumatic life. But we also see him make every effort to cling to what he knows in his heart to be good, even if that means his own demise.
The beleaguered cop has sworn to find his wife's killer. Not to avenge her—he points out that he's seen more than his share of killing—but simply to right the wrong. He goes into a potentially deadly situation to save his partner. He puts himself on the line battling tremendous odds to reveal what he perceives to be an ugly government plot.
The hospital's head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley, seems to be trying to do right by his patients. He states that Ashecliffe is the most advanced and humane facility of its kind, dedicated to a "moral fusion between law and order and clinical care."
An unseen man is heard preaching the saving power of Jesus. A cell-bound patient whispers from the shadows, saying, "God help you." Another inmate displays a large tattoo picturing a thorn-crowned Jesus on his back. Teddy calls out to God in anguish ("Please, God. No!") after trying to revive three drowned children.
The question of whether Teddy believes in God comes up. A prison guard tells Teddy that he believes God loves violence, because there's so much of it in the world. "God gave us violence to wage in His honor," he says. Teddy rejects the idea.
A painting of a nude woman reveals her breasts. Several male patients display full-frontal nudity while milling about in a shadowy cell. After stripping out of wet clothes, Teddy and Chuck are both shirtless and wrapped in towels. We see Teddy in the shower (from the waist up).
Crude conversations touch on the subjects of adultery, oral sex and anatomical size.
Teddy has dreams and memory flashbacks throughout the film that are filled with incredibly gruesome imagery. One of the bloodiest is a war scene in which Teddy's unit liberates a concentration camp in Dachau. Several times we're shown close-up shots of a German officer who, in the process of trying to commit suicide, blew the side of his face off. He's choking in a pool of his own blood that spreads out on the floor around him. When the man tries to reach for a gun to finish the job, Teddy pushes the weapon away—not to save him but to make him suffer longer.
Outside the officer's window are piles of corpses stacked like cordwood in the snow. The camera slowly pans across the frozen faces, including a mother and daughter in each other's embrace. Once, Teddy imagines the deceased looking at him and asking why he failed to save them. That same plea is duplicated by another dead girl in a later vision.
The Americans gather all the German concentration camp soldiers together and, in a heated moment, kill them en masse in a bloody, firing squad-style execution. Teddy pulls dead children out of a lake and lines up their bodies on the grass. The children's mother points to her handiwork and asks, "See, aren't they beautiful?"
Teddy—deciding that it's his responsibility to "release" the woman from the grip of her insanity—shoots and kills her after she pleads with him to "set me free."
Later, a dream shows the same dead children with a different mother. This time the woman is literally dripping with their blood as she interacts with Teddy. The children, too, are covered with blood as Teddy carefully picks one of them up.
An Ashecliffe patient dabs blood from his own torn flesh and writes with it on the wall of his cell. Another patient grapples with Teddy, trying to choke him. The marshal responds in kind. He also fights with a guard, knocking him out with a rifle. In his mind, Teddy shoots and kills Dr. Cawley, leaving a huge bloodstain on the wall. In reality, he blows up the doctor's car by igniting its gas tank.
A hospital guard leans in close and asks Teddy, "If I were to sink my teeth, right now, into your eye, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?" Teddy thinks he sees the dead body of his partner on the rocks at the base of a high cliff. We see that the man Teddy identifies as his wife's killer has a raw, stapled, Frankenstein-like scar running across the middle of his face.
Crude or Profane Language
About 20 f-words and nearly 10 s-words. Jesus' and God's names are blasphemed over 25 times. (God's is combined with "d‑‑n" at least 10 times). There are also a half-dozen uses of "h‑‑‑" and several uses each of "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch" and "a‑‑." Vulgar references are made to male genitalia. One man spits out the n-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Teddy jams a needle full of sedatives into a doctor's arm. Dr. Cawley gives Teddy what he thinks is aspirin for his violent headaches. It's suggested that he's being slipped drugs in his food, drink and cigarettes.
Chuck and a couple of the doctors drink alcohol. In a flashback scene it's revealed that Teddy used to be an alcoholic. Nearly everyone in and around the Ashecliffe facility smokes either pipes, cigarettes or cigars. Teddy and Chuck, in particular, are old-school chain smokers.
Other Negative Elements
Twice we see Teddy throw up.
As I walked out of the press screening for Shutter Island, I was greeted, as usual, by a studio representative with pad in hand and a "What did you think?" on her lips. I hesitated. I hadn't yet had time to really even get my head around everything I'd just sat through. So there were only two words that surfaced. But even though I've since had ample opportunity to come up with more showy descriptors or pithy review statements, I think I'll stick with my original assessment of gruesome and brilliant.
The story itself—based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, known for his blue-collar crime story Mystic River—is all pulp fiction thriller. But its execution here has a ball-juggling intelligence to it. Director Martin Scorsese uses long, lingering tracking shots, discordant, sweeping musical passages and heightened sound effects to echo classic Alfred Hitchcock at his drum-tight thriller peak. In fact, if Hitchcock had made a picture about Norman Bates' years in a mental ward, I'm convinced it would have been at Ashecliffe.
Audiences are kept constantly guessing at reality as the action slowly funnels down to one simple and final question that makes all the pieces fit snugly into place. And though not truly spiritual in nature, that last moment makes a powerful and thought-provoking statement about a man's overwhelming thirst for goodness—while chin deep in all of the worst evils mankind can inflict upon itself.
But there's the rub. Scorsese's never been one to shy away from the grisly or raw, and he surely doesn't here. If this had really been a classic thriller from the 1950s, the coarse language would have been softened and the dark violence would have been dialed down. But we're half a century away from the '50s. And Martin is not Alfred. So the worst of the worst is splayed out in shuddering openness on Shutter Island.