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  • #43: Shutter Island (2010) (dir. Martin Scorsese)

#43: Shutter Island (2010) (dir. Martin Scorsese)

my second favorite scorsese film and a lot of that has to do with the final dialogue exchange, like fearless, another great film about trauma

“Baby, why are you all wet?”

Movies can be a form of therapy. They are an escape. They create an island that we all go to visit, maybe not by ferry but very often a ticket to enter is involved. Certainly, we should have an open mind before heading into new territory established by the storyteller.

The first time I walked out of Shutter Island, I was disappointed by the reveal. I wrote it off as Scorsese’s foray into M. Night Shyamalan or Christopher Nolan territory; something well-made but not substantial. I felt I had seen this type of movie done before (complete with a mourning Leonardo DiCaprio). I mostly spoke to other friends and film fans feeling similarly - that it wasn’t upper-tier Scorsese. Then I watched it a 2nd time, a 3rd time, a 4th time. Now I have gone on record as saying it’s a masterpiece as a result of watching it closely, sometimes to the point of pausing and reflecting. You may not feel inspired to do the same after reading this but if you were like me on just one viewing, I implore you to keep trying.

I was beginning to realize that this particular film by one of my favorite directors was slowly becoming a favorite right alongside After Hours. And declaring that even on podcasts or among friends, they often respond with bewilderment. Do I think it’s a better film than Goodfellas? Not necessarily. But personally, I get way more out of the experience of revisiting Shutter Island even more. Probably because it examines what I’m most interested in regard to the human experience: psychology, trauma processing and subjectivity. Sometimes it even delves into dream logic - always a plus. On a surface level, I love every facet of filmmaking on display here, from the breaks in continuity to the use of music from previous works and the high concept puzzle that becomes more emotionally complex the more I sit with it. Not to mention a stellar supporting cast and one of my favorite DiCaprio performances as well.

I truly feel that this film is saying why we even love watching movies in the first place to a certain extent - better to live inside this constructed fantasy world than dealing with the harsh pains of a traumatic reality. In fact, we’re all trying to create our own little islands to live on - they could be on a portable device that we design to our own specific interests, or we make an effort to sit down and experience a story with an enthusiastic audience inside a theater. 

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are federal marshals called to the island to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). After being greeted by a cadre of grim-faced, rifle-toting guards, they meet up with Drs. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow). The former is an advocate for new and experimental forms of psychiatry, the latter, a stern believer in the traditional establishment, possibly a former Nazi. Teddy is also there for another reason: to uncover a character by the name of Andrew Laeddis.

The question of whether or not Teddy is of sound mind surfaces early on, and the ghostly specter of his late wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) appears periodically in his dreams. She seems to be guiding him towards an answer or remains a part of him in a way that he can’t let go of. The sequence where Teddy holds an ashen Dolores as their apartment burns is poetic in its tragedy and becomes unbearably sad upon rewatches – the vision of a man literally holding on to someone who’s long departed this world for reasons we slowly begin to uncover by the end. Again, there’s a bias in that Scorsese chose to use a composition by Max Richter that is guaranteed to make me cry.

Teddy breaks into the prohibited Ward C to find Laeddis but meets a patient and acquaintance named George Noyce (Jackie Earle Hayley) who reveals to Teddy that all this was a game being played to deceive him. On one hand, a scene like this (along with an expository explanation late in the film by Kingsley complete with whiteboard) might be eye-rolling simply due to the fact that things are being spelled out directly to the audience. There is no subtlety here in terms of the revelation and the plot machinations. The complexity and genius of this story actually comes in the very final moments. SPOILERS from this point forward.

“Leo Vs. The Island. Calmly paranoid, like a patient on the cusp of death. Just pregnant with unforgettable images: a smoking half-cigarette hanging off a cliff, stone statues made evil by a migraine's force, a lighthouse as a periodic reminder of the film's countless little mysteries. DiCaprio is in a perpetual state of vulnerability; all roaming eyes and aggressive behavior. This is Scorsese's feature-length "Hitchcock, Bava, Robert Wise" concoction, and it's one of his very best.” - SilentDawn

Throughout the movie, it’s gradually revealed that the entire “Teddy Daniels Story” was Andrew’s escape from reality complete with a badly acted “partner,” named Chuck (Dr. Sheehan). It’s no wonder that Chuck is often acting poorly or clumsy at times (watch him fumble with his gun early on). Dr. Sheehan is not an actor, he’s a psychiatrist who’s been monitoring Andrew through a therapy role playing game that aims to help Teddy confront his past. Not only has Teddy been in denial, but we’ve been playing along right with him - reality is not always what it appears to be. It is rapidly being manipulated in ways that aren’t always clear.

This is a common idea in many movies like Fight Club, The Game, Taxi Driver, and Donnie Darko. This entire movie is not for the shock reveal but for the journey from a mental patient’s perspective who finally accepts reality in his way. And those who surround him are trying to prevent a more drastic approach to curing him. Watch the movie a second time and you’ll know that Teddy is not the only one under mind control, the audience is too. In some respects, I am not even sure if the author, writer and director of this film sat down to essentially make a movie about why we immerse ourselves in the art of fiction, but to me, that’s how this experience plays out. 

But that’s a sunnier perspective - oh, this movie is about why we escape reality. The real truth is what’s behind that layer. We still don’t know how to treat the mentally unwell and this film is an aching portrayal of not taking PTSD or severe illness seriously. Andrew himself in this film has no clue how to help his mentally unstable wife, Dolores. His plan was to isolate her further rather than seek treatment. 

On one hand, yes, perhaps there is good intention in that: instead of institutionalizing her, he decided to move to a lovely lake house so she could have peace and quiet while raising their family. However, he was a workaholic that never attended to her needs. He never got her help. She drowned their children and had a complete break with reality. Shutter Island highlights the devastating effects of ignoring mental health issues - within yourself and those who are closest to you. You can find variations of this throughout Scorsese’s career: someone isolated, lost, unstable, trying to find their way out. I know what that’s like and I also get terrible migraines and have severe trauma from almost dying from a rare disease. Perhaps this just works on multiple layers for me in ways it may not for others, but I stand by my masterpiece proclamation.

“Shutter Island is not only excellent but a fascinating variation on the director's recurring themes. Teddy Daniels, like most Scorsese protagonists, is a man compelled to harm himself, to stay on a path of self-destruction that any outside observer can immediately peg as insane. Yet the film differs from Scorsese's portraits of defiant immolation (Goodfellas), self-martyring sacrifice (The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead) and oblivious harm (The Irishman) by presenting a character who is genuinely held hostage by his own trauma. The twist, much discussed and derided, is merely the pulpy endpoint of a film so keyed in on the defense mechanisms of fantasy and displacement that the entire movie around the protagonist is visibly false. Rear projections abound, editing makes a point to break continuity, and the color timing is so wild that the film is as much a tribute to Jack Cardiff's work for the Archers as Hitchcock's grim horror-thrillers.” - Jake Cole

Of course, there’s symbolic energy surrounding the imagery of water, fire, and the lighthouse. Water usually being a representation of rebirth, fire being a force of destruction and the lighthouse as a place where one goes to lose the comfort of their familiar mentality. Psychoanalysts always thought of dreams about any “house” as representing the human mind. What if the light goes out? Then you may be subjected to some kind of mental break, perpetually lost in the dark like the characters in Annihilation and The Lighthouse as well. Again, there’s no denying the fact that Kingsley’s reveal of the truth is didactic and heavy-handed but Andrew is a man who needs that kind of brutal confrontation so he can finally come to terms. 

It’s hard not to think of several characters as being part of Teddy’s fragile state, particularly when he enters a cave thinking he’s found the real Rachel, this time in the form of Patricia Clarkson. She spouts off a lot of wild conspiracy theories, some of which are undoubtedly based in some kind of truth. We’ve come from a lot of barbaric behavior when it came to the early experiments surrounding mental health treatment. A film like Jacob’s Ladder also hints as to what may have been done with US soldiers during the agent orange era. It’s something I once researched in-depth, realizing that drugs have been used for very good purposes but also nefarious ones in hopes of achieving mind control (i.e. The Men Who Stare at Goats). 

But it all comes down to what happens during the moment involving what really happened to Andrew and his wife. Certainly, the image of him holding his dead children is something that is hard to shake but Doris’ shift in behavior and demeanor contains moments of sustained horror. She doesn’t realize what she’s done in a rather cold state of dissociation and detachment. Then what about the moment of Andrew deciding he can’t forgive her and move forward. That in fact, he can’t control what he’s about to do - perhaps he’s thinking it’s what’s best for her because he knows she’s not coming back to reality. It’s an act of mercy. (Someone who could do this shouldn’t live and is clearly incapable of recovery - is what could be coming up in his mind, not that I agree with that). Or does he simply do it out of unrelenting anger and revenge for the death of his children. 

It also ends up being a reflection of the brilliant final moment, which to me is what makes this film a masterpiece. Up until the very end, I love this movie of course but the decision to end it with Andrew essentially deciding he’d rather “die” in a way, is more than just a shock to the system, it says volumes about how some people realize they will never fully heal from something so devastating. Granted, he’s basically going to be a lobotomized brain-dead zombie - not dead in the traditional sense - but still dead inside, oblivious to his transgression. Scorsese made this choice along with the screenwriter which altered the ending of the book in a sense. In the book, he basically admits to being a murderer and then doctors take him away to the lighthouse. In the film version, there’s an extra line added that makes it all the more powerful.

He asks his partner/psychiatrist Sheehan whether it’s better to live as a monster or to die as a good man. The question leaves Sheehan shook and disturbed, as does Teddy’s failure to answer to the name “Teddy” (which further reinforces the implication that he knows this isn’t his real name). Teddy is the good man; Andrew is the monster. Andrew no longer wants to remember the war, ignoring the mental health needs of his wife, even his children - how he neglected to be there for them.

He’ll now become just like the woman we see early in the beginning that whispers “shhh” to him. His mind will die. He can no longer be Teddy nor will be Andrew. He wishes to be blank. The movie, almost in essence, becomes the opposite of what Eternal Sunshine ends up saying in regard to “holding on to the good and the bad.” It’s what makes us imperfectly human. Our protagonist here would rather become inhuman - someone who can no longer feel the pain, regret and trauma at all. Teddy/Andrew is only dying intellectually. The lobotomy will keep him breathing and docile till natural causes bring him down. He will no longer disassociate to where he wants to live inside of the Teddy fantasy. That desire will be gone.

In a way, we no longer want to feel the pain of the world, or the damage done in our personal lives when we escape to watch a movie - a fantasy that we get to live inside of a couple of hours. Sometimes I wonder, am I experiencing entertainment as a necessity to actually feel okay in the world? To cope with what’s happening outside while trying to understand what’s going on inside my mind? I get lost inside the story of others and sometimes, there’s a mystery to be solved that leads to better understanding for both the characters and me, the viewer. 

Directors like Martin Scorsese have created their own islands for me to wander, full of various individuals for me to question, to relate to or to watch their arc grow into something else. They are populated by character actors who look familiar (Elias Koteas looking like Robert DeNiro at one point, Ted Levine popping up to expound on the virtues of violence that is very Travis Bickle-like). Shutter Island is subtle in how it reveals so much about my psychology that it took a few viewings to cement itself as more than just an escapist genre exercise. It’s so much more to me. In other ways, it’s the opposite of subtle: bombastic, like the score that plays as they arrive on the island and begin their tour. In the end, this is a glimpse inside the history of psychology and the human mind itself.

I am definitely not here to sell you on why Shutter Island is a masterpiece in many different respects (though let’s face it, I’ve tried quite a few times here). I’ve seen mostly ratings and reviews that are in the middle or quite the opposite of where I’m coming from. From my vantage point, this really is up there with the great works of art ever made to where it is in my top 20 favorite films. But I’m also aware that someone watching this could have a vastly different feeling when it’s over. 

Shutter Island is one of the great works of art of the past 30 years and even if someone sat me down with a whiteboard to tell me otherwise, I would be shaking my head in disagreement. There’s no doubt I will be writing about more Scorsese films to come but this is one that has slowly become an all-time personal favorite with moments that move me like no other film of his has ever accomplished before. This film captures a lot about what makes us human and our perpetual need to escape reality. Grief and trauma can often feel like we’re holding on because it’s what we’re used to, in denial that the past has turned to ash. Now it’s up to us to walk away from the debris and dust that remains.


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