Shutter Island

This post won’t make any sense to you unless you’ve seen it. So… it’s hidden for those who would just be baffled. I think it’s sorta worth seeing, though it disappointed me in the end.

Man, the thing that bugged me about Shutter Island is how those psychiatrists s completely fooled Teddy Daniels into believing all that crap! That poor bastard — he finally bought it, and now he’s going to be lobotomized so he can’t blow the lid off the experiments going on at Shutter Island… Argh! So frustrating!

If someone said this at the end of the film, you’d be baffled. The ending was so clear, so unequivocal. Teddy Daniels is Andrew Laeddis. He is trapped in a world of hallucinations, hiding from reality. Some part of him actually realizes this, and suppresses the reality. He is willing to be lobotomized in order to escape the reality from which madness only partly shislds him.

What’s wrong with this structure — where for the majority of the film, we see him not as Laeddis, but as Daniels, is that as the story develops, so does an ambiguity. The ambiguity is a cleverly-wrought thing, and it builds and builds and builds until, finally, you have no idea who is real, and who is fake, and whether this character is who he or she says he or she is, or is someone else entirely.

Until that last scene, and the sudden memory at the end of the penultimate scene, this ambiguity is masterfully maintained. Is the protagonist Andrew Laeddis, a screwed up US Marshal who refused to acknowledge his wife’s mental illness, and shot her dead after discovering how she murdered their three children, now incarcerated on Shutter Island? Or is he Teddy Daniels, US Marshal, sent into the facility on Shutter Island to investigate a patient’s disappearance (and with a secret grudge to settle hidden in his back pocket), but discovering something much bigger and darker is actually going on?

For me, the one thing that made the film interesting was the ambiguity. The story is either a sad story of a monster who cannot face what he is; or it’s a vile, pulpy SF plot set in the fifties with mad scientists and all. I felt no real desire to have the film resolve itself into one or the other possibility — I wanted to see it skate that edge as long as it could.

A narrative can carry that ambiguity to the very bitter end. For a wonderful example, read The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. I’ll be honest — some Henry James I’ve tried, I found simply unreadable. But this one? Critics and scholars have argued ever since its release whether the reality-in-the-book is a supernatural one, or one of madness. My first real essay as a Literature double-major back in undergraduate argued that the argument over which of the two possibilities is true neglects something much finer and more interesting: a purposefully structured textual ambiguity where resolution is somehow constantly and ultimately avoided.

The ambiguity, I argued (perhaps a bit incoherently) was the point. It was exactly what the text performed for us, informing us in an intimate way of the ambiguity felt by the protagonist herself. Again, I say: the ambiguity was the point.

And so I feel it is with this film. Yes, yes, obviously Scorsese is doing Hitchcock hommage, and by the way that quality is very odd and enchanting. It does look, for the most part, like a film shot in another era. But I found myself wishing that the hommage, the twist ending, had indeed been a meta-twist: a refusal to resolve things one way or another.

Yes, yes, the traditional twist ending turns your expectations on your head, neatly resolving the mystery in an unexpected way. Well, but the neatness and the resolution, I think, aren’t as necessary as we seem to think. We can do without the comfort. We can do without it quite well, if we just are given the chance.

I’m not saying that people should have been walking out saying, “I’m so confused!” That is one solution. Another, probably preferable, approach would be to structure things so that people walk out of the cinema absolutely convinced of one or the other possibility, except that both seem equally plausible.

Writing-wise, I think the flaw in the script is how it shifts fom the primary point of view — that of the ambiguous Teddy Daniels/Andrew Laeddis — to, in the very last scene, a sort of 3rd person point of view. Suddenly, we’re no longer seeing things from within Teddy/Andrew’s head. We see Dr. Sheehan give the nod to Dr. Cawley, who is visibly upset at the outcome. Teddy/Andrew is led off to be lobotomized.

This is not an ambiguous ending. If he is indeed Teddy, and the Shutter Island Facility is an evil, evil place, then he would simply have been drugged and lobotomized early on. Drs. Cawley and Sheehan wouldn’t have spent two or three days messing with Teddy’s head before convincing him he’s a killer who’s deluded, and then — and only then — give him a lobotomy. The clarity in Dicaprio’s last line in the film, about wondering whether it’s better to live as a monster, or die a good man, leaves it pretty clear he’s quasi-conscious and has chosen to be obliterated to escape his fate; that is, that he still feels the way he does about “psychos”, but now he realizes he is one of them too, and has chosen…

… well, what? If he’s conscious of his past, and choosing to die, then he’s dying a bad man, not a good man. And if he’s not aware, if he is in delusion, then how could he imagine himself a monster? It just makes no sense.

Of course, maybe I’ve just asked for something and then demonstrated I actually got that thing. I guess I’d have to see others’ reactions to know… what did you make of that ending? Did it actually seem reasonably ambiguous to you? Do you think you could have enjoyed the film if the Teddy/Andrew ambiguity had remained unresolved, or only seemingly resolved but in a way where both resolutions were entirely possible?

Oh, one more thing: it’s an amazing soundtrack. All kinds of 20th century “classical music”, as in, the kind of compositions that, when you’re listening to them on their own, challenge the hell out of you as a listener. And somehow, they’re just the perfect mood music for this film. Weird, I know.

2 thoughts on “Shutter Island

  1. I read the book before I saw the movie, and I actually think it worked better as a book because it didn’t have that point of view shift. I was curious to see whether or not Scorsese would be able to pull it off, and I think he did. However, it’s just a story that is not completely satisfying to me.

    I thought some of the settings and shots and mood was very Hitchcockian. However, I wish that Scorsese had stuck more with the Hitchcock and used a lot less gore and outright horror. I think that would have been more effective.

  2. Alexis,

    Yeah, I was curious about how that was handled in the book. Was the ambiguity also maintained? Or did the twist of the secondary ambiguity (whether he’s really had a reversion, or is choosing to die) sufficiently fill the first one (whether he’s crazy or sane in a crazy world)? Also, what is the POV in the original — 1st person or 3rd limited omniscient, focused in the head of Laeddis/Daniels? (I assume it’s one of those.)

    I didn’t mind the gore and horror, though. I think I’d have been more annoyed if it had stayed closer to Hitchcock, since I prefer hommage not to mean stooping in imitation. :)

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