4) “Shutter Island” – The Opening Act (continued)

Yesterday we took a 10,000 foot view of the opening act of Shutter Island, both the book and the movie.  The focus was on the first scene (aboard the ferry taking Teddy and “Chuck” to the island) and how it established a context of deception for all that is to follow.

Chuck, of course, is not really Chuck.  But nobody, especially Teddy – who is actually in a better position to know this than we are – has any way to realize that fact.  

There are so many things about this opening scene that give away the Big Secret of Shutter Island, but odds are you won’t notice any of them until you see it or read it a second time.  You may notice something is a bit off kilter, but it’s impossible to assign meaning to it.  At least not yet.

But when you do see it a second time, you’ll be amazed at how blatant it all is.

Today we’ll look at the Part 1 scenes themselves, analyzing them against the eight criteria offered yesterday that, in sum, comprise the mission of the opening quartile of a great story.

Any great story.  Including yours.

In the film there are 15 scenes leading up to the first plot point.  In the novel there are 16 scenes leading up to that exact same plot point moment.

In both cases the Part 1 scenes have a singular contextual purpose, as they do in any structurally-sound story: to set-up that first plot point.  And in doing so, to achieve eight story-specific objectives.

Go back to yesterday’s post to review them if they aren’t on the tip of your tongue (they are the bulleted points in the middle of the article), as this is the stuff of any effective opening act. 

Those eight things alone can and should accelerate your writing career. 

The Scenes

Prologue – narrated by Dr. Sheehan, whom the reader cannot yet identify Rachael Solondo’s missing doctor, and later, as Teddy’s sidekick, Chuck, in the contrived fantasy scenario they’ve crafted. 

In the book this is the hook.  But it’s not there in the film, and, while brilliantly written, it’s not remotely missed.

Scene 1 – on the ferry.  Teddy wakes up sick, centers himself.  The question the viewer reader doesn’t think to ask at this point is, wakes up from what?

Scene 2 – up on deck he meets “Chuck,” his new partner on the case to which they’ve both been assigned.  They are U.S. Marshals sent to the Shutter Island hospital to investigate the whereabouts of the missing Rachael Solondo, a psychopathic patient who murdered her own children.

Her crime is a key element of foreshadowing, by the way.

There are about 20 such clues in this scene.  For example, in the book Teddy says he thought he had his cigarettes when he boarded… that’s huge once you know what’s going on, but slides under the radar on an initial read.

These clues are hidden among all the backstory and contextual set-up, that (only in retrospect) lead directly to the hidden truth that Chuck is hiding and Teddy is actually, in part, crafting via his own madness.

Yes, Teddy is totally, certifiably mad.  But the reader/viewer has no way of knowing… yet.  Imagine trying to write this scene without you, the author, knowing it, either.

That’s why pantsing doesn’t work, folks.

Scene 3 – a sequence of cuts as they arrive on the island.  Notice how many armed guards seem to be watching them closely – Teddy even comments on all the firepower – and then admit you didn’t know what it all meant on the first viewing.

In the book this scene blends into what, in the movie, are Scenes 4 and 5.

Scene 4 – a great exchange at the gates of the hospital, where Teddy is asked to surrender his weapon.  Notice how Leo’s acting here seems wooden and the dialogue contrived.  That’s because it is, and by design.  You get a sense that the guards can barely contain a knowing grin.

Imagine the acting challenge before DiCaprio here – playing an insane man who is, from deep within his own neurosis, playing the role of a U.S. Marshal.  A role within a role, one of them scripted and acted by a lunatic.   

There are two Teddys, and DiCaprio has to discover and inhabit both of them.

But first, Lehane had to write them both, coexisting yet unaware of each other.

Scene 5 – as they pass through the gates onto the grounds of the hospital, we learn about the dark and imposing Ward C building, where the real whackos are kept.  There’s a great moment here in which one of the patients looks up from her gardening chores and puts a finger to her lips in a “shhhhh!” gesture.

Ever ask a four year old to keep a secret from someone specific?  Don’t tell grandma?  That’s what’s going on here – the patients are all aware of the ruse being perpetrated on Teddy, and they’ve been told to play their role and to keep the secret.  This “shhhhh!” moment is precisely that.

Sort of like Bubble boy’s first television interview a few months ago… he just couldn’t keep the secret his father had schooled into him.

Kids and insane people are like that.

Scene 6 – the machinations of checking in and getting oriented to the hospital.

Scene 7 – a critical scene in which Teddy and Chuck meet the head hospital cheese, Dr. Cawley, who is enigmatic at best.  We get some backstory on the escaped patient (Rachael Solondo), and we sense that Cawley is being set up as a possible antagonist here.

In truth, though, the sub-text you sense from Cawley later exposes itself as something else entirely.

Again, Lehane’s narrative (and the movie’s screenplay) is so full of sub-text it almost overwhelms the surface drama.

If you aren’t clear on what sub-text is… here you go.  Watch this move and/or read this book and see it blossom gloriously before your eyes.

Scene 8 – in which Scene 7 is interrupted when Teddy sees a picture that triggers his first flashback, wherein we first meet his dead wife, Dolores.  There’s no question at this point that Teddy is not in full command of his senses, and while it seems obvious that we (the viewer/reader) should already be connecting Teddy’s flashback to the case at hand, somehow we don’t.

That’s Lehane again.  He keeps the surface plot so urgent and clear that, in spite of the foreshadowing, we stick with it.

Scene 9 – back in Cawley’s office, where he says that Rachael Solondo “vanished into thin air, as if she just disappeared through the walls.”

Notice the quick and informed eye contact between Cawley and Chuck in this scene.  They are on the same team, and it’s obvious… but only in retrospect.

Scene 10 – major story point here (easily misinterpreted as a first plot point because it’s so significant, but it isn’t, and for many reasons, one of which is it’s just too early in the story for it to be one): they check out Rachael’s room, where Teddy finds a hidden note with the cryptic coded messages on it.

The note doesn’t really change anything for Teddy, it just intensifies and propels the drama forward.

Scene 11 – we see the guards outside the hospital walls and along the rocky shoreline, supposedly looking for signs of how Rachael Solondo might have escaped.  This is perhaps the most obvious of all the scenes in terms of exposing the unspoken truth of this story – the guards are phoning it in, bored, some of them just sitting around as they play their role in this charade.

It’s all for Teddy’s benefit, nothing else.  The charade is in full swing.

Scene 12 – Teddy questions the staff, which has gathered for this purpose.  Again, there is a palpable sense that everyone is hiding something from Teddy, which of course they are.

At this point – again, only in retrospect – it’s clear that the exposition of “the case” where Rachael is concerned is virtually meaningless.  It’s important to Teddy’s experience that he continue the charade of an on-going investigation, but the real story here is how Teddy is being seduced into the fantasy world Dr. Cawley has created.

At the end, the reasons behind the charade are perhaps, more surprising and dramatic than the mechanics of it.  There is only a little foreshadowing on that count, but it’s there.

This scene is where it comes out the Rachael’s doctor – Sheehan – is off on vacation.  Which of course is outrageous in any reality.  Teddy is fuming at this, as an investigator should be, and – precisely because it’s so outrageous — it cements the impression that the entire staff is hiding something. 

There’s a great moment in this scene when a nurse comments on how handsome the missing Dr. Sheehan is.  It’s great because Chuck is staring right at her… and as it turns out, of course, Chuck actually is Dr. Sheehan.

Foreshadowing with a sense of humor to it.

Scene 13 – alone with Cawley now, Teddy asks him to summon Sheehan back to the island, or at least to call him so Teddy can ask some tough questions about Rachael.  But, conveniently, all the phone lines are down because of the brewing storm.

Some have wondered how Cawley conjured the storm in support of the contrived ruse, or if the storm was part of Teddy’s hallucination.  No, the storm was very real.  In the novel it’s clear (toward the end, when Cawley tells Teddy the truth)  that this experiment depended on a storm in order to work, and that they – Cawey and Sheehan –  simply waited until a storm arrived to pull the trigger on the whole thing.

Which, as it turns out, involves a lot of psychotropic drugs.  Which, if you harken back to Scene 1, is precisely what Teddy awakens from, and why he’s so immersed in his own fantasy world.

Scene 14 – another major scene, this one after dark at Dr. Cawley’s home, where we now meet the scary Dr. Naehring, the German, seemingly evil doctor who it’s easily to visualize in a black apron carving the brain tissue away from skeletal prisoners strapped to a table in a concentration camp.  Remember, this is 1952, not that long after such things actually happened, the memory of which is fresh in Teddy’s mind. 

There is much double-entendre going on in this scene, as if Naehring is talking about one thing – Teddy’s reality – and Teddy is struggling to remain in his alter-ego fantasy identity.

Scene 15 – their conversation triggers Teddy’s flashback of his days as a soldier during the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, which is horrific in many stomach-turning ways.  Enough, you might say, to drive a man insane – which is precisely the point.

Scene 16 — this scene is the First Plot Point.  

More on that day after tomorrow. 

Tomorrow will be about what these scenes mean and why they work. 

Sorry to leave you hanging.  But there’s much more to discuss in evaluating these scenes against the stated criteria for the Part 1 scenes, which are defined in a previous post (#3)

Click HERE to learn more about the principles of story structure and narrative technique that are the foundation of this deconstruction, and of effective storytelling in general.


Filed under Shutter Island Deconstruction

14 Responses to 4) “Shutter Island” – The Opening Act (continued)

  1. Again, great work Larry!
    Steep learning curve for me, with the pros…

  2. Thanks for both recommending the excellent movie and even more for vivisecting it in the educational purposes. 🙂

    Speaking of the opening scenes, especially the one on the boat… It’s a very risky business to start a story with foreshadowing that makes the opening weak and/or not-quite-convincing for the viewer. Those first dialogues on the boat, especially the weird fact of having to partners that never met each other before, can easily put off a viewer (and even more a reader). I guess it’s a mastery for itself to make the balance between the foreshadowing and the first impression that viewers or readers will bite to.

  3. You’re a rogue for ending here; you write so well, and with such a deft hand at creating tension, it was like watching the movie unfold without all the soundtrack and horrible images.

  4. kelly

    Mmm Larry.
    In the book, I have scene of Teddy breaking Rachel’s code (after the dream) as FPP- chapter 6, pages 87-91.
    Having seen the movie just once, though- is scene sixteen where Chuck says he “never quit anything before”, or the morning after?
    Thanks– Kelly

  5. @kelly — in my view, the First Plot Point occurs in the dream, where Dolores tells Teddy that Laeddis “is here.” This triggers Teddy’s shift in personal priorities (from finding Rachael, which now becomes a cover story that gives him time and a reason to hang around on the island to look for Laeddis), as well as tying to the truth, which Dolores represents in Teddy’s subconscious.

    Mission of plot point: it changes the direction of the story, it adds purpose and meaning and stakes to the hero’s quest. This moment does that.

    The solving of the code isn’t, in my opinion, the plot point, because now the code isn’t attached to Teddy’s main purpose, which is to find and kill Laeddis. Which is, ironically, also Cawley’s main purpose — that being to help Teddy “find” Laeddis and discover who he is.

    The scenes in Part 2 of a story are, contextually, a “response” to the plot point. Teddy’s work on the code seems to fall into that category… the closer he can get Rachael, the more time he’ll have to find Laeddis.

    Hope this helps. Pegging these things is always a judgment call, and only the author knows for sure. Our goal here is to see the structure at work, pick it apart and see what and how the author did with it.

    Thanks for participating and contributing, very glad you’re here. L.

  6. Wow! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in just a few short posts, and especially this one.

    I didn’t get to see the movie before it was out of theaters, (dang-it), but devoured the book between Saturday and Monday in preperation for these posts. Now I feel like I’m going to have to read it again to make sense of it all, which of course I will, but I don’t want to miss a beat here.

    Thanks so much for this Larry. It’s already helping me immensely.

  7. Monica Rodriguez

    Just started reading Monday’s installment but will soon catch up. I found a copy of Shutter Island in the airport Monday and 2 1/2 days later, I finished it! So I may be able to do this with you after all. Just gotta read the last few posts… 😀 (phew!)

  8. Also, when they search Rachel Solondo’s room, they find a pair of mens shoes in the closet. Why would Rachel wear mens shoes?

    That would be another sign that something wasn’t right. However, I never picked up on it until after the movie.

  9. Monica Rodriguez

    In the book, if I have it figured right, the scene you’ve pegged as Scene 8, interrupting Scene 7 and introducing the picture that will trigger Teddy’s flashback, doesn’t happen until AFTER Cawley says Solando vanished into thin air. Was this different in the movie? Also, in the book, Cawley made eye contact w/ both of them before he said that. Just wondering if I’m following you right.

  10. @Monica — you are correct. In the movie he makes this comment in scene 9, after the flashback. In the book, Cawley says this on Page 42, in a scene which does not include a flashback. As I hope I clearly noted, the movie differs from the book only in the way the flashbacks are presented, and sequenced. The producers inserted the flashback in the middle of this scene, but in the book the scene transitions into a conversation with the attending orderly right before the visit to Rachael’s room. L.

  11. Pingback: 10) “Shutter Island” – How It All Ends, and What to Make of It

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  13. bill

    I know this is like 2 years late but one of the absolute brilliant subtleties is when Teddy first meets Dr. Cawley. Teddy is looking at the pictures in the room and Cawley is explaining them to him. He says that they use ‘to even submerge people in ice water.’ Then what he does is pauses mentally a few seconds, looks at Teddy, and hesitates for a few seconds more, and then finishes the sentence and says that ‘some of them even drowned’.

  14. @Bill – agree, great moment. Genius foreshadowing, made all the more effective via the action. I can’t recall that specific moment in the book (which also had its share of genius foreshadowing), but the first person POV there changed the nature of it.) Thanks for contributing, and for getting it. L.