2010 in film: ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘Inception’

Part of me wants to see Leonardo DiCaprio in a romantic comedy. Or any part that doesn’t have him looking introspectively out of frame. Or holding a gun. You get the point.

DiCaprio has become Hollywood’s go-to for intensity and inner turmoil. Much like Christian Bale, who has developed an almost identical reputation, the almost 40-year-old is specifically cast as internally torn and disrupted men, in movies that use DiCaprio’s unrest as its central motivation. 2010, if we define it as the year we questioned our reality, was DiCaprio’s year.

In “Shutter Island” and “Inception,” DiCaprio played very similar characters. They were both, primarily, subjects of a vast trial, a test that would prove what kind of people they were. In the former, he’s Teddy Daniels, a detective challenged with cracking the case of the creepy insane asylum (ultimately by means of facing himself). The latter had him traversing dreams, another detective of sorts, trying to achieve something most say is impossible (ultimately by means of facing himself).

With the kind of intensity and detachment he plays all of his characters (I believe actors reach a point of popularity and skill that stagnates them, for better or for worse), DiCaprio wielded the two well, becoming the nexus for both films. Scorsese, who directed “Shutter Island,” and Nolan, “Inception,” used the actor to prove their films: his knack for strength, regret, and most importantly hurt became a vehicle for the films’ recurring and resounding themes.

It’s testament to the two auteurs, interestingly enough, that while the films are so similar in tone and scale (with “Inception” being slightly more set-piece reliant) they still provide entirely different experiences for the viewer (but still manage to reach the same conclusion).


  • A dead wife who doesn’t seem to go away
  • Trauma-soaked memories that encroach on the real
  • A main character who constantly questions his surroundings; is this as it appears to be?
  • The reliance on visual repetition and motif
  • Booming, memorable soundtracks


  • “Shutter Island” is a character study; “Inception” is a world study (with a central lead, of course)
  • “Shutter Island” is hinged on one final discovery (as it proves, a weak hinge indeed); “Inception” is more about the journey than the destination
  • “Shutter Island” strings you along for the ride; “Inception” loses you
  • “Shutter Island” prefers one-on-one; “Inception” plays zone: In this I mean the former knows where it’s going and how it’s going to take you there — these are the steps that need to be taken. It wants to move a character from point A to point B, and is written accordingly (you can tell it’s a literary adaptation). The former has solid direction, with a solid script (“Inception” uses recurring, triggering dialogue more abundantly than any film in recent memory), but zig-zags, complicating its path to exhalation.

If we’ve learned anything this year, as A.O. Scott so elegantly put in his summation of 2010’s obsession with reality, it’s that a palpable fear that we’re not living the way we think we are has come to dominate our collective psyches. The idea that there’s a higher truth than what we see, one that we may have already conceived but refused to face, as suggested by both “Shutter Island” and “Inception,” has resulted in an unprecedented cultural self-examination. Whether they’re a nod to film itself, or the digital and technological age we occupy, or something entirely different, these films defined 2010.


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