It’s easy to take what a movie tells you for granted. Unless we’re told otherwise, we tend to assume whatever we see in a movie as what’s actually happening.
It can be fun to have the rug pulled out from under you with a late-arriving twist, but it’s even more satisfying when a movie makes you question what’s real right from the start.
That’s what makes Shutter Island interesting. Whether you go in knowing the ending (which won’t be spoiled here), you’ll spend much of the movie wondering how much of what you’re seeing is real.
That puts viewers in the same position as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to Shutter Island, a high-security psychiatric facility in 1954.
All of Shutter Island’s patients are violent criminals and, this being the ‘50s, the facility is more prison than hospital. The duly appointed federal Marshals are there looking for a recently escaped patient.
It seems clear the staff is hiding something, and before long, Teddy confesses his own ulterior motives to his partner. Teddy’s wife died tragically years before, and he believes the man responsible is on Shutter Island.
Things only get worse as reality, flashbacks, and hallucinations mingle, with an ever-shrinking border between them.
As Teddy falls deeper into regret over his wife’s death and trauma from his time as a WWII soldier, he suspects Shutter Island may have a more sinister purpose.
Shutter Island’s cinematography is fairly muted, relying on simple, well-composed shots over flashy camera tricks. As the pressure weighs on Teddy, fantasy starts encroaching on reality more and more.
The camera often lingers on shots of fire and water — two ever-present elements that tie Teddy to the past and mark his progress toward the truth.
It all leads up to a twist that’s effective not because it’s particularly mind-blowing (you could fully work it out on your own if you watch closely), but because of how much it aligns viewers with Teddy.
Teddy’s spent the whole movie looking for answers and chasing conspiracies, with viewers in tow. The truth isn’t as tidy as he’d hoped, but as the pieces fall into place, there’s at least some comfort in his search coming to an end.
Of course, we have one advantage over Teddy: We can watch again knowing what’s coming and enjoy Shutter Island in an entirely different way.
Shutter Island is streaming on Netflix until January 31.