Shutter Island: Live as a monster or die as a good man?

shutter island

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

In a revealing late chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry asks Professor Dumbledore whether their poignant interaction has been taking place for real or merely in his head.  “Of course it is happening inside your head,” Dumbledore responds, “but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island personifies that sentiment—all its heartening and worrisome consequences—perfectly.  We might not agree with it at first, but the more you think about this movie, the more it makes sense, after your brain is melded, stunned, reversed, reversed again, and invigorated.  Filled with disturbingly bone-chilling moments the likes of which few movies possess, Shutter will mess with your mind, and then it will leave you in feverish contemplation of its ideas.  There’s one jolt after which the audience jumped more noticeably than I’ve ever seen before in my life.  It made a (female) friend cry extensively, made a (male) friend turn to me repeatedly to tell me how creeped out he was, and left me, like all my companions, legitimately clueless of what was going to happen in the climax—a staggering, and incredibly rare, combination of forces.

And then, afterwards, it’s provoked hours of discussing amongst everyone I’ve seen it with.  Given potential by Dennis Lehane’s book (the man behind only Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), director Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer, composers, and actors transform it into something enduring.  If movies are designed to arrest the senses, to provoke extreme emotions, to force examination of thoughts and feelings that might not otherwise be considered, then it’s clear why Shutter Island will be repeat viewing for anyone who sees it.

Set in 1954, with Communist paranoia as just one component of dread, Shutter teams Scorsese up for the fourth time with DiCaprio, who plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels.  He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been assigned to visit Shutter Island, an ominous piece of rock off the coast of Boston Harbor that houses a mental institution for the criminally insane.  Teddy and Chuck were sent to investigate the unexplainable disappearance of one of the inmates, Rachel Solando, who, we are told, lives in denial over her murder of her three children.  Teddy and Chuck are assisted, to an extent, by the facility’s head doctors Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow), and the actors’ (particularly Kingsley) strike the perfect balance between creepiness and kindliness that only muddles our perceptions even more.

Before long, we discover that Teddy stalks the island for reasons beyond Rachel’s disappearance, but we’re not sure exactly what they are.  Is it because he’s trying to uncover evidence that the seemingly good-natured psychiatrists are actually performing mind-altering experiments on their human patients?  Is it because his past—deaths within his family, wartime trauma—compelled him there, perhaps in search of another patient?  Will he ever make it off the island, and if not, will it be because the doctors refused or because he legitimately didn’t belong anywhere else?  Just how much can we believe him?  Or are both parties not to be trusted?

Scorsese embellishes these feverish questions with a dazzling array of sights, sounds, and visual tricks so absorbing that you’ll probably be having dreams about them afterwards—and not pleasant ones.  Teddy’s own disturbing nightmares about his dead wife and his past begin to overlap, more and more, with the missing woman and what we perceive to be “reality,” to the point where we stop being able to clearly identify what exactly is happening.

And when you leave Shutter Island, you’ll wrestle with your inability to state exactly what “happened”—both because that question can’t really be answered without reference to specific characters’ perspectives and because Laeta Kalogridis’s script doesn’t have any interest in giving you a simple resolution.  Is there actually a ‘twist’ in play, or not?  Reviewers seemed perfectly content to accept the plausibility of the apparent twist, but after countless hours of reflection and discussion with others, I have too many doubts.

Moments like Ruffalo’s final spoken word, Cawley’s dubious claim that they’d broken through to Teddy 9 months previously, and the overstatement of the heinous nature of Teddy’s crime by Cawley pushed me towards thinking that he’d really only been there for 2 days.  The parallel seemingly drawn with the older woman who killed her husband in somewhat-believable circumstances seemed a crucial indictment of the institution as well, as did a few things Cawley said that didn’t seem compatible with the presumed twist.  But almost everything here can be taken as evidence for either perspective.  Ruffalo’s word could have been part of Teddy’s delusions.  And—critically—there’s acting involved either way; either the institution was involved in a dramatic ‘role play,’ or everyone was trying to push Teddy further into paranoia in order to paint him with that brush.

In fact, that confusion is PRECISELY the point of Shutter Island: how fine the line is between the sane and insane.  If you were insane, would you know it?  Did Teddy know it?  Who can say?  And, the movie proposes, couldn’t anyone could be insane and not know it.  If you were painted as insane, would you accept it?  Or would you think you’d been mis-characterized?  And doesn’t Teddy truly personify the concept that (in)sanity isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition?

Philosopher Renee Descartes formulated the famous “Dream Argument,” the notion that, since during dreams we are unaware of their fakeness, what we consider our normal lives could, analogously, all be a dream, could all be manipulation and deceit.  Of all the creepiness and shocks in Shutter Island, that’s the most discomforting thought—that anyone could either a) painted as insane or b) actually be insane.  That’s why the mind-melding of the movie’s tricks works so well on us, just like in A Beautiful Mind; we’re feeling what he is.  Who’s insane, and who’s to determine that?  Was Teddy unable to completely hate his wife because he saw that he could have easily been turning into her?

Shutter raises all these questions pointedly, creepily, coldly efficiently: how resilient and smart was Teddy, and how capable was he of being manipulated?  The film makes numerous references to his intelligence, as if to ask: under certain circumstances, is it ‘smart’ to be insane?  The comments from various patients who expressed no desire to leave the institution out of fear that the outside world had passed them by sounded remarkably forward-thinking.  So was Teddy’s ‘decision’ to create an alternate persona for himself evidence of insanity?  Or did it enable him to lead a more stable, productive life?  And was it smart that, whether or not he was acting with his final comments, he wanted everything to end?

But even if Teddy had accepted his fate, isn’t it the case that the institution had won, that he was doomed regardless?  And if you thought anyone could be insane—including yourself—wouldn’t you oppose the thought of authorities declaring who was?  The island is so close to Boston, but it may as well be a million miles from anything.

Wow.  How often does a film make the most of everything from its opening shots—the shrewd symbolism of showing DiCaprio’s face through a mirror and then straight on, highlighting his dual personalities—to that infinitely fascinating final exchange, wrapping up everything and nothing all at once?  In an age when movies are made with such extreme caution, with such an obvious desire to appeal to the least common denominator, Shutter Island explodes as a maverick, structurally, thematically, visually, emotionally.  After each viewing, I haven’t wanted to do anything (other than talk about it), sometimes just driving or walking around aimlessly, lost in contemplation and well aware that I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else.  After my first two viewings—on the same day—I was convinced it was an outstanding movie, and my feelings have only intensified since then.

Amidst all the discussion it provokes about sanity, instability, knowledge, and uncertainty, the most important take-away message might be that the true dangers in the world come not from external sources to which we apportion blame, but from within, from our own terrors and uncontrollable urges.  Teddy, we can gather from skillfully placed background information, couldn’t deal with his wife’s demons because he was too occupied with his own, and he couldn’t deal with his own because he wanted to fear and blame something outside of him.

Just like The Bourne Ultimatum, Shutter Island has become the latest feverishly-anticipated movie that nevertheless blew me away.  It will without question define my senior year of college and 2010 in general, and for many years in the future it will become one of the first “Have you seen…?” questions I ask people when the conversation turns to movies.  Despite the fact that it’s more of a short-story than a novel, really, and that it unashamedly flaunts its creepiness, it has virtually nothing that’s not exceptional.  There’s DiCaprio, masterfully portraying Teddy’s ‘descent’ into insanity, a performance that just gets better the more you know about his character.  There’s the seemingly endless debate and discussion it provokes, both about its involuted storyline and the philosophical issues it raises that relate to us all.  And there’s that visceral intensity, that psychological gut-punch, that ferocious look on DiCaprio’s face that keeps telling us there’s even more to see, more danger around the corner, more mysteries of the human mind yet to be uncovered, more depths of cruelty yet to plunge.

Grant J.

Grant J.

Grant co-founded Earn This in 2009 and is a regular contributor. His music taste makes him seem a lot weirder and sadder than he really is.

One thought on “Shutter Island: Live as a monster or die as a good man?

  1. Nice review. After seeing it once, it shot straight into my top 3 films of all time. It is not often a film delivers such a blow to the gut or requires so much analysis after the fact. Truly brilliant film.

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