Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by: Laeta Kalogridis
The opening sequence of a film is critical to the success of a film – it is the first taster that the audience gets. It is fundamental that whatever happens in the opening scene entices the audience to keep watching while establishing characters and genre of the film. While the director doesn’t want to give away all of their cards, they need to put enough creative breadcrumbs in place for the audience to want to follow through with the story.
Shutter Island is a neo-noir psychological thriller set in Boston, 1954 and tells the story of US Marshal Teddy Daniels, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Teddy has been sent to Shutter Island, home to a mental institute for the criminally insane in order to investigate a missing patient. But all is not as it seems.
The film opens with a black screen, all the audience can hear is water lapping until a foggy backdrop fades into view. Slowly drifting in through the mist comes a boat peeling back the smog with a man standing on the edge of it.
However, instead of cutting to the man on the boat, we cut to Teddy Daniels in a wide shot from behind. He’s fenced in by chains rattling from the roof – which we’ll get to later – and throwing up into the toilet. Already, an element of his character is introduced to us – he gets sea-sick. The shot then cuts to a close up of his face, giving us an insight into his character all the more. He’s got a plaster on his face – he’s sickly and is talking to himself in the mirror or, effectively to the audience. It’s a personal, intimate moment that the audience is allowed a glimpse into what’s going on with him in this instant. He feels vulnerable which is why he’s telling himself to ‘get it together, Teddy’.
Once he has pulled himself together, he begins to walk through the chains and handcuffs which are dangling from the roof – which again, we’ll get to in a moment.
We’re then introduced to Chuck Aule, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo with a wide shot from behind. He’s wearing the exact same uniform as Teddy. But it’s clear from their interactions that they’ve never met before – “So you’re my new partner?” They then begin to delve into some expositive dialogue to introduce the plot of the story to the audience. Exposition is one of the more difficult elements of a plot to factor into a script – you don’t want to patronise the audience, you don’t want to make the dialogue feel clunky or forced and you also don’t want to leave them in the dark. Kalogridis has a useful scenario in that this is the first time the characters have met so it’s natural for them to divulge some things about themselves and what they’re doing.
In just a few moments, Scorsese has completed the conventional opening sequence – he’s established the characters of Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule and the genre of a mystery/thriller without it being forced or awkward. The scene is something of a cold open in that the audience is thrown straight into the story – we don’t have any build up of Teddy being given the assignment or getting onto the boat. We find out the reason for that later in the film. The two main characters are introduced seamlessly and the premise is laid out for the audience.
But as we later discover at the end, it enters into the trope of The Ending Changes Everything. It is revealed in the third act of the film that Teddy Daniels is in fact, a patient of Ashecliffe (the mental institute on Shutter Island) called Andrew Laeddis who is suffering from poor mental health due to a traumatic incident. In order for his mind to be able to cope with what happened, he created an imaginary world for himself where he was a marshal who was looking to help unearth the dark secrets of Ashecliffe. Dr. Cawley, portrayed by Ben Kingsley, explains that the hospital had brought his fantasy to life with the hopes that it would break the cycle and force him to face reality.
While this is an excellent plot twist that catches the audience off guard but also manages to be a firm narrative in itself. The second viewing of the film is like watching an entirely new film, similar to films like Fight Club. The same can be said through little moments all the way through the film which hint to the audience what is happening – that will be a post all of its own at some point – but for now, we’re going to focus specifically on the opening scene and how differently it plays when you know the truth.
The first insight that we get into Teddy’s character is that he is sea-sick and/or afraid of water. We later learn that water plays a massive role in Andrew’s trauma as his wife drowned his children in the lake by their house. We also see him walking through chains which is symbolic of when he was a prisoner but is now walking free – it is likely that when he was being taken out to sea, he was in chains while they set up the rest of the role-play.
After his brief conversation with Chuck, he pats down his pockets looking for his cigarettes. Chuck kindly offers him one of his, saying, “Government employees will rob you blind.” as Teddy believed that he had his own packet. It seems like natural dialogue that creates a realistic world but it is later used against him when Dr. Rachel Solando asks if he’s been smoking his own cigarettes, implying that they’ve been drugged to play into his fantasy.
However, the most important aspect to note is how the guards act around Teddy when he first arrives.
The premise has been set up that there’s something sinister about Ashcliffe, whether from the patients or the staff. But as the marshals step off of the docks, there is an immediate sense of hostility coming from the wardens that are there to meet them. One man especially makes a point of looking Teddy up and down as if waiting for him to attack – which on second viewing, we know he is. In the screen shot above, even though there is a warden behind Chuck, his attention is fixed on Teddy.
“Your boys seem a little on edge, Mr McPherson.”
“Right now, Marshal, we all are.”
Again, this is another moment that could so easily fit into the established premise of the film – a patient has gone missing, they’ve been searching for days for her and there’s a storm coming in. But upon second viewing, it’s because they know just how violent and unpredictable Andrew Laeddis is – and they’re waiting for him to lash out.
Via the use of subtle acting, detailed set pieces, a strong script and meaningful shot choices, the opening scene of Shutter Island opens up new moments that you may have missed each time you watch it. The opening scene of Shutter Island on a base level encourages viewers to keep watching to find out what happens and upon second viewing, becomes a masterpiece.
Please let me know in the comments what you think about the opening scene of Shutter Island and let me know what film you would like to see an analysis of next. Be sure to follow for more updates.