‘Shutter Island’: The Fragile Intersection Between Sanity and Insanity

Martin Scorsese’s feature film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel Shutter Island delivers the kinds of cinematic references one has come to expect from the exceptionally film-literate director.

Shutter Island
Martin Scorsese
Paramount Pictures
19 February 2010

Martin Scorsese’s feature film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel Shutter Island delivers the kinds of cinematic references one has come to expect from the exceptionally film-literate director. A psychological thriller of this sort allows Scorsese to indulge in a kind of visual storytelling that synthesizes many of his own known favorites – most obviously Val Lewton and Sam Fuller – into a plot about a missing woman, the U.S. Marshal trying to find her, and the spooky setting in which the tale unfolds.

Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has disappeared from Ashecliff Hospital, which is located on Shutter Island and holds/treats criminally insane patients. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives on the island with his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), determined to find Solando, but as is always the case in this sort of plot, he finds much more than he originally intended. This description befits any number of generic B-pictures throughout past decades of cinema, and much of the tension with Shutter Island is in Scorsese’s attempt to preserve the nostalgic Shock Corridor/Wicker Man thrill but simultaneously aspire to aesthetic excellence, all in the form of a modern, healthily-budgeted, star-driven movie. He mostly succeeds, thanks to his always-sharp direction, excellent actors who know how to respect the film’s crucial line between text and subtext, Robert Richardson’s signature cinematography, and Robbie Robertson’s brilliant modern classical soundtrack selections.

Though these formal elements are basically as good as they get in a mainstream Hollywood film these days, it is the psychological territory of the film that is ultimately the standard by which it will succeed or fail for most viewers. In a time when wearying visual spectacle (and the undead tyranny of yet another 3D trend) take up far too much studio and audience attention, it is refreshing to see the popular discussion about a multimillion dollar film concern its story rather than its loud and eye-popping qualities. Lehane’s source material and a script credited to Laeta Kalogridis become, under Scorsese’s direction, a kind of Rorschach test for the viewer. While this is appropriate and appreciated in a film about the selectivity and subjectivity of memory, there are some problems in the film’s connection of memory to the corresponding visual world.

From the very beginning of the movie, there is a heavy-handedness to certain thematic concerns like “water” and “violence” that indicates their importance to the viewer. Preventing this obviousness from sinking the film altogether is a building awareness by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels, that there is a conspiracy being constructed and enacted around him. Additionally, the preferred technique of the doctors and officers at the hospital is to know how to handle each individual visitor to the island, so it stands to reason that their questions and actions would be purposefully in sync with the character’s past and present action. In short, the film’s hyper-constructedness is motivated by the setting and dramatic situation. Without predetermination, a place like Ashecliff Hospital would spiral out of control. Everybody is “in on it” by necessity.

Yet the subjective flashbacks of the Daniels character are so fluid that they become arbitrary and, at their worst, they trivialize the historical context of the film. The main action of the character is to find Solando, who appears to have vanished. Daniels’ backstory, however, becomes more important to the plot than the film’s ongoing action, and Scorsese integrates the past action through flashbacks and the introduction of ghostly characters to the physical environment. Long before the point in the film when Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) actually lectures Daniels on the etymology of “trauma”, the audience understands that it is subject to a wounded and unreliable narration.

Early on, Daniels tells Chuck about his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) who died in an apartment fire, and that initial story develops to include visions of her killer and her repeated intervention from the grave into Daniels quest for Solando. The problem with this development, regardless of the film’s several careful motivations for such visions and dreams – and especially given the way the film concludes – is the creation of too many red herrings and the related, gradual draining of stakes from the plot. The viewer who “figures out” the film’s central mystery before the film is ready to reveal it is likely to be unmoved by the variations on Daniels’ traumatic loss. Alternatively, those who remain transfixed by the visual storytelling regardless of the shifting narrative are faced with a separate (and larger) issue, which is the trivialization of events such as the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

From Titicut Follies

The incidents that supposedly resulted in Solando’s institutionalization were the drowning of her children and subsequent refusal to acknowledge her actions. This expository, off-screen violence becomes linked to Daniels’ own trauma, as his desire to rescue his wife from her sealed fate morphs into a desire to do the same for Solando and her deceased children, represented in his fantasy by a sad little girl who accompanies Solando. For a while, this amorphous flashback strategy gives the film some energy. For instance, the first extended vision of Dolores with ash floating down around her is truly spellbinding, and the radiant Michelle Williams uses her comparatively scant screen time to create a deeply sympathetic character. Her ability to do so is even more impressive when one considers the turn Dolores takes in the final, revelatory flashback sequence.

However, any momentum the film hopes to gain by merging the two events comes to a stop when they intersect puzzlingly with the third major flashback thread – Daniels’ presence at the liberation of Dachau. From a certain perspective, the initial Dachau footage does establish Daniels as a “man of violence”, as Dr. Naehring describes him. Yet the film uses Daniels’ recollection of the horrifying mass of dead bodies at Dachau not to make any observation about war or the Holocaust, but instead to capriciously provide another site for the substitution of the haunting bodies that are closest to his own fixations. So, just as easily as she crept into his crumbling remembrances of Dolores, Rachel Solando “becomes” a victim of the concentration camp. This is the point where the transposable body strategy reaches the end of its dramatic usefulness and risks a tastelessness that distracts from the enjoyment of the film.

Shutter Island tangentially addresses other period-specific historical realities, such as the atomic bomb and the proliferation of medical experiments and lobotomization, but unlike the Dachau sequence, these fit into the rest of the plot concisely and seamlessly rather than showily, amplifying the possible threats without hijacking the plot. Credit also goes to Patricia Clarkson, who enters the film late but serves a pivotal function as a cave-dwelling variation on a character the audience thinks it has already met. Without spoiling her identity, it is safe to say that one’s acceptance of this character as either a) real and reliable or b) imagined and illusory determines one’s perspective on protagonist Teddy Daniels. The information she gives him deepens his suspicion that there is some plot at work around him, and the rest of the film concerns the mechanics of his paranoia. After sharing his mad visions throughout the film, the audience is ready for Daniels to finally confront that which has caused him to come undone.

The film’s protracted conclusion is rooted in a literary mystery tradition of reaching a climax through the long-winded unveiling of crucial details and missing pieces. Traditionally, purposeful misdirection prevents this information from being in full view, with the expectation that subsequent readings and viewings will reveal it to have been part of the narrative fabric from the very beginning. Guillaume Canet’s recent adaptation of Harlan Coben’s Tell No One is similarly faithful to this tradition, though that film is considerably less on-the-nose than its source material. Compared to Shutter Island, Tell No One is also more rewarding in its final revelations because it has allowed some degree of genuine confusion to bind both the protagonist and viewer as the third act commences, so that our need for answers has intensified. By contrast, despite its several red herrings, Shutter Island is so eager to both show and tell its relevant clues throughout, that there is not much left to actually discover in the film’s finale.

Therefore the “great whatsit” of Shutter Island is (to borrow a phrase from Matmos) Daniels’ “struggle against unreality”. This overarching struggle encompasses any number of actual or imagined threats, but it is ultimately his mental state, and how it came to be, that is the key to resolving the film’s dramatic action. As over-constructed as the film is at times, there are parallel quotations from two significant characters towards the end of the film that thoughtfully frame the limits of Daniels’ situation (and the film’s “reality”), yet also leave plenty of space for various interpretations of that reality. The lady in the cave tells him, “Once you’re declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity.” Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the man who seems to know more than anyone else about the hospital and its inhabitants, says, “You’ve uncovered a conspiracy so that anything we tell you about who you are — what you’ve done — you can dismiss as lies.” Neither scenario allows Daniels to be in full control of the truth; at least while he is on this island and in the presence of someone like Dr. Cawley, for whom the manipulation of Daniels’ selective memory is a project of paramount importance.

In the end, Shutter Island concerns the surrender of one’s own subjective memory and identity to another individual or institution. In order to make that choice — to become a passive player in someone else’s version of reality — must one be sane or insane? Finally, is the total elision of memory a possible means of restoring one’s grasp of truth? These are the questions that confront the central character and audience of Shutter Island and elevate the film beyond the modern “twist” picture.

Of all the past movies that Scorsese acknowledges in this film’s style and substance, none covers the intersection of sanity and insanity more dramatically than Frederick Wiseman’s landmark 1967 documentary Titicut Follies. Shot at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, the film is rife with problems of consent and invasion of privacy, and its observational style has the potential to seem disconnected and dispassionate with regard to the patients it documents. However, unforgettable patients like Jim, who is cruelly taunted by the guards, and Vladimir, whose logical declarations of his own mental soundness are coldly received as evidence of insanity, are preserved in the film as victims of an institution that created considerably more madness than it cured.

Shutter Island entertains with its story of a cocksure, but troubled, U.S. Marshal reduced to a pawn in larger conspiracies, but the horrors the film addresses have very real origins in recent history. Although Wiseman’s film lacks narrative context, it offers disturbing evidence of institutional wrongdoing that is both historically significant and relevant to the present-day understanding of mental health issues.

Conversely, the complete absence of bonus features on the Shutter Island DVD (and the film’s previously mentioned trivialization of historical events) frustratingly indicate a lack of interest in exploring the many past realities that the script uses to forward its mystery. While the film looks and sounds great, and the somewhat ambiguous conclusion is satisfying with regard to the provocations of the plot, it would be nice to see additional effort put into addressing the greater world of the story — to flesh out the film’s relationship to reality.