To this day I'm still not entirely sure what to make of Shutter Island. It was such a big deal to me when its release was delayed back in Fall, 2009 to winter 2010. Its delay was essentially to say this is not another Martin Scorsese awards contender, as every film he'd released since the 2000s had been.
Its obvious why the film's producers decided it might fare better in the more relaxed environs of post-Oscar movie malaise, but at the same time it's such a strange movie that there's not really any particular season where it could fit snugly.
After watching the first season of MINDHUNTER (which is pretty great, though part of my enthusiasm for it might just be that the final episode was absurdly good, hence softening the impact of various shortcomings that the previous middle episodes displayed), I thought a bit about Shutter Island and how it represents the absolute antithesis of what David Fincher was in part attempting to say in his new Netflix series. MINDHUNTER, without hesitation, correlates the criminally insane with pure evil and makes no attempt to change our perspective on such a notion. It got me thinking how Shutter Island is the polar opposite. Seen side-by-side, it's hard to imagine Scorsese directing any bit of MINDHUNTER, just as Fincher helming Shutter Island would probably not have worked.
The title Shutter Island is perfect. The word ‘shutter’ in the sense of a hinged panel on the outside of a window for increased security and protection certainly is fitting in relation to the movie. After all, it describes a mental hospital housing “only the most dangerous patients,” and the fact that a hurricane is approaching when the film begins makes it all the more suitable. However, in his original review of the film, critic Richard Brody writes: The title is “Shutter Island”; the shutter is, after all, a part of the camera, and once you pass through, you don’t get out.”
Shutter Island asks that we “pass through” the camera and into its confines. We’re stuck there, simultaneously mesmerized by the world Scorsese creates and perturbed by what it asks us to do there. The movie is a psychological thriller with a major twist ending that rocks your understanding of what came before. Somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film is completely enjoyable on its initial viewing simply as a mystery. But once you understand that mystery, rather than suddenly diminishing, the movie becomes something all together more rich and unsettling.
We learn that its protagonist, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is actually named Andrew Laeddis, a patient at the mental hospital we assumed he had been investigating. Prior to being committed to the institution, he killed his wife, and because he is unable to admit to this terrible fact, he participates in an elaborate game organized by the hospital in which he pretends to be investigating a missing person case on the island. The revelation serves to shock us, while within the narrative it is meant to trigger within Andrew a full realization and acceptance of his guilt. As a twist, it does what the best ones accomplish: it turns the entire film you thought you had been watching on its head. But instead of becoming an empty vessel, the content prior to that revelation actually becomes richer once the secret behind the narrative is revealed.
Watching Shutter Island in light of the fact that we know the events are an elaborate contrivance necessarily diminishes much of its initial suspense. But in doing so it also becomes something you never thought such a disturbing, pulpy, ornate psycho-thriller could be, or, dare I say, have the right to be: a deeply affecting, terribly sad character piece, an operatic tragedy with some of the most emotional filmmaking of Scorsese’s career. When we pass through into the claustrophobic world of Shutter Island, we’re asked to commit to something far more unsettling than observing a hospital for the criminally insane. We’re asked to engage emotionally with a murderer.
One of the most talked about lines in the film is the final one, in which Andrew sits on the hospital steps with Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo), and seemingly reverts back to Teddy Daniels and says they need to get off the island. He then asks, “Which would be worse—to live as a monster or die as a good man?” He then stands up and allows other doctors, including head Psychologist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) to lead him off to be lobotomized (during the film’s revelation about Andrew’s identity, we’re informed Andrew must accept either his true identity and actions or a lobotomy).
If Andrew has already regressed then Shutter Island would be an indubitable bummer. Gladly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Andrew’s final words, which were an addition to the script that is otherwise extremely faithful to its source material, suggest he’s controlling his fate. You don’t close your film with such a weighty line of dialogue for no reason.
The central takeaway is that Andrew’s regression is a performance. Dr. Cawley’s experiment worked and Andrew’s guilt is such that he cannot continue living if he accepts he murdered his wife.
Scorsese’s chief psychiatric advisor on the film, Professor James Gilligan, has even confirmed that this is the correct way to interpret the film’s conclusion: Andrew does indeed choose his fate. According to Gilligan in a 2010 piece from The Guardian, those cryptic last words mean: "I feel too guilty to go on living.” The decision finally indicates Andrew is in control of his mind, and while his end is tragic, it ultimately defines him as a man driven by grief and guilt. These deeply human emotions, coupled with Andrew’s final moment of autonomy over his fate, suggest a request that we feel for this man. One should never overlook the importance of a film’s ending, and here that is no exception. If Shutter Island goes to these lengths to paint Andrew in this light, it only seems to serve the notion that Andrew is a kind of hopelessly tragic hero. At the center of Shutter Island is not madness, but rather a deep melancholy.
Is it absurd to use this kind of language? I don’t think so. Consider this: Shutter Island is about a man so crippled by grief and denial that he participates in a massive fable and even takes on a new identity to stave off the realization of his guilt. It’s an absurd but profound proposal. I also have to think it’s the reason the movie doesn’t play well with a lot of viewers. Rather than picking up pace the film actually slows as it continues, and at 140 minutes it can really feel interminable as Teddy navigates the deepest environs of the island and engages in episodes of extended paranoid dialogues with other patients. As A.O Scott wrote in his original and quite negative review of the film in The New York Times, “Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.” But despite its genre trappings I see no reason not take this film quite seriously. In fact, it might be because of those trappings that it becomes such a powerful experience. Since it’s a genre exercise, everything seems larger, more heightened: it’s not just the ominous skies, the booming soundtrack, the dramatic weather, the gothic architecture, but also the emotion of the whole thing. If all Scott saw was “a pointless contrivance” then did he really see this movie?
From the opening scene we gather Teddy’s underlying trauma—stemming from his wife drowning their four children in the backyard pond—by his anxiety on a boat surrounded by water. “Pull yourself together Teddy, it’s just water,” he says in a tone fraught with peril as he approaches Shutter Island with his “partner,” Chuck. Shutter Island is filled with moments like these where the dramatic effect shifts when you’re cognizant of Teddy’s past and true self. The movie makes no demands that we sympathize with Teddy, but it does want us to at least understand him. It wants us to take seriously the idea of loss and how it can fully take over and dictate a life.
But again, it’s difficult to find this idea in the film because it is often lurking behind the utter hyperbolic style of it all. Scorsese devotes much of his energy here to simply convey an atmosphere of dread and paranoia, justified by the cold war anxiety, WWII PTSD, and 1950s societal repression that serves as the movie’s social backdrop. It’s very easy to overlook its nuances in favor of its deliciously bombastic sense of mood and style, present from the very first frame of a boat emerging through a thick fog as a booming cello signals this world is not safe.
And yet this style does not mask the film’s underlying investigation of loss. It invigorates it. It suggests that the only way to truly express the whirlwind of feelings surrounding a tragedy of the proportion Teddy has encountered is to express it through genre style. And that’s not to say Scorsese’s world is one giant metaphor for Teddy’s mind, though you’re free to interpret it that way if you choose. Instead, it seems tied to the idea of the stories we tell about ourselves. In life, the line between mediocrity and grandiosity can be an act of telling yourself what you want to hear. But what happens when you use this method in relation to a tragedy you’ve experienced? You must create a giant fiction, something so preposterous that it inevitably accentuates the emotional feeling behind it. When that fiction is exposed, all that’s left is the emotion, and suddenly the story you’ve told yourself seems ridiculous, maybe even embarrassing.
That seems to be the ultimate justification for the elaborate style and fictions that muddle the truth behind the real Teddy Daniels. The truth hurts in Shutter Island, but you can’t live a good life live without it. The sorrow underlining the film is that Andrew is incapable of living with that truth. Either he hides from it and pretends to be Teddy Daniels, or he dies.
The sense of loss that permeates the movie is actually present from our opening tour of sorts of the as the smirking Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) shows Teddy and Chuck the layout of Shutter Island. We get our handful of ominous imagery, like the thick barbed wire atop the prison walls, various prison guards holding their rifles austerely, and a patient putting a whispering finger to her lips for no apparent reason other than to signal that something’s not quite right. But the camera also focuses in on the entrance sign to a cemetery that reads: “Remember us, for we too have lived, loved, and laughed.” These words are not incidental, and Scorsese, who’s spent his career obsessing about what is and is not in the frame, would not include this if it wasn’t meant to be pondered. The film quietly asks that we don’t simply act horrified by the patients at this institution. After all, as Dr. Cawley says at one point, “insanity’s not a choice. You can’t just choose to get over it.” We do not have to show love or deep compassion for these individuals, but at the very least we should think of them as suffering human beings and not simply as crazed animals. That’s particularly true of Teddy. We’re supposed to see that behind this delusional man is a tragic character with a past who indeed lived, loved, and laughed.
Other choices Scorsese makes are also indicative of loss as the movie’s central through line. In particular there is a dream sequence that ranks among the most stunning and emotionally overwhelming pieces of filmmaking of the director’s career. Until this point Shutter Island’s mood is largely one of ominous danger. Suddenly we find ourselves in Teddy’s dream universe as he walks down a corridor towards his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). She berates him for his drinking problem, which he attributes to the fact that he killed so many people during the war. Additional dream/flashbacks will show his involvement in the Dachau Liberation Reprisals and the horrific violence he was confronted with and participated in. But in this particular scene the focus is on the heartbreak that defines Teddy, and, as such, the film itself.
Using lush color to contrast the film’s typically stormy visual palate, the sequence is structured around two key ideas: The first is that Teddy’s dreams about his dead wife help to perpetuate his delusional narrative about the events in his past. First of all, we see ashes floating down around the room like dead flower petals, which is tied to Teddy’s story about how his wife died in an apartment fire. Teddy cannot come to terms with the fact that he killed his wife, and he seems equally traumatized by the fact that his children are dead—particularly his daughter Rachel. Rachel shows up in several of his nightmares, and even says at one point “You should have saved me, you should have saved all of us.” And yet in the dream, Dolores says:
“She’s still here.”
“Who? Rachel?” Teddy asks.
“She never left,” Dolores replies.
On a literal sense this relates to Rachel Solando, the “missing patient” Teddy is supposed to investigate. It implies that somewhere in his psyche he’s aware the disappearance is simply a game. But because his daughter is named Rachel as well, we gather Teddy is incapable of confronting the full extent of his tragic past. Here Scorsese wants us to feel devastated, not disturbed. Composer Max Richter’s sublime and elegant On the Nature of Daylight makes its first of three entrances in the movie, every somber note tinged with feelings of grief and pain. It’s the sonic equivalent of the aforementioned cemetery sign. Out of nowhere the film asks that we might take it dead-seriously. Teddy clings to his wife like he clings to his fake version of the past. She begs him to let her go and then turns to ash and crumbles around him. This is deeply challenging emotional territory, and the case could certainly be made that the pulpy genre style that makes up so much of this movie does not warrant the inclusion of such weighty themes. But to me the opposite is true. When you approach grief from a place you least expect to find it, and suddenly reveal it with such sleight of hand as Scorsese does here, you can’t help but admire it. This could have been another Cape Fear-style genre homage, and that would have been fine. But Scorsese ends up reaching considerably higher. He knows it might make us uncomfortable. He hopes it will move us beyond such a feeling.
Shutter Island takes a wild, twisty approach to reach the conclusion that there’s no way to ever fully recover from a tragedy. You can forge a new identity, try to fall in love again, or go insane. But the truth will always find its way back and will haunt you forever. Andrew is incapable of living with this reality because on top of the grief that dictates his actions is a sense of guilt that sucks his personhood dry. The end credits music of Shutter Island starts with the booming cello used in the film’s beginning. But as that wears off, Scorsese and his long-time musical collaborator pull off the dazzling mash-up of Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight and Dinah Washington’s 1960 song This Bitter Earth. The two melodies mesh perfectly together, and create the somber, melancholy mood Scorsese chooses to impart on the viewer as they leave his movie.
I still have some difficulty fully embracing the way the film works. It’s easy to acknowledge Andrew as an unfortunate soul who was not meant for this earth while also keeping a safe distance from his crippled mind. It’s the kind of thing that can be frightening to get too close to, and that we hope is just the stuff of nightmares. But the truth is that it isn’t. We ought to confront Andrew Laeddis as a man. In a way that sounds like a perfectly obvious, mature perspective. In the world of Shutter Island, it’s the biggest surprise of all.