If Session 9 is a film that, in terrifying terms, locates horror in an external sense of place; then Martin Scorsese’s effort is a film that explicitly concerns the mind. Here, horror is located inside the human psychology, both in terms of the film’s lead character, Federal Marshal Ted Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), and also in terms of the American culture of the 1950s, the film’s setting. Even more than that, however, there is a sub-textual message about America in the last decade.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a film noir set in the decade of Eisenhower on a small island in Boston Harbor. The island houses an asylum called Ashecliffe, which is home to sixty-six criminally insane mental patients. The facility features three wards. Ward A houses males. Ward B houses females. And Ward C — a Civil War Era fortress — is home to the “most dangerous” patients in the country.
Daniels and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) take a ferry to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an Ashecliffe patient, Rachel Solando, a war widow who, for reasons unknown, drowned all three of her children. Rachel escaped from a locked room and left behind just one clue, a cryptic note reading: “The Law of 4. Who is 67?”
During the course of his investigation on Shutter Island, Ted encounters three authority figures of some importance.
The first is Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a doctor who declares that Shutter Island’s facility represents a “moral fusion” of “law and order” and “clinical care,” and who shuns both the pharmacological and surgical approaches towards mental health treatment.
Then there’s Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), a man who takes a hard line towards the prisoners/patients of Ashecliffe and prefers surgery — lobotomies — to any such “moral fusion.” With his German accent and draconian belief system, there’s something faintly Nazi-like about Naehring, and Daniels picks up on it quickly.
And finally, there’s the warden played by Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs ), a man who is convinced that Ted is a “man of violence.” Let’s just say that this warden is in touch with his darker side.
As is the case in all good noir stories, Ted indeed carries some personal baggage with him on his “case” at Ashecliffe. In particular, his beautiful wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) died in an apartment fire set by the mysterious Andrew Laeddis, a criminally insane man that Teddy suspects is now incarcerated in the mysterious Ward C.
In one beautifully-rendered scene, Ted dreams of tragic Dolores, and airborne ashes — her earthly remains — suffuse the atmosphere around the couple like falling snow.
The film lingers on Ted’s intense feelings of guilt about his failure to save those in his life that needed rescuing, and also about a strange turn that his life has taken which — he subconsciously fears — makes him a “monster.”
This personal sense of guilt is reflected in Scorsese’s film by America’s sense of cultural guilt over the past. In particular, its guilt about the direction that our nation has taken. One character in the film, a physician, specifically notes that “fifty years from now, people will say it started here, on Shutter Island.”
Fifty years forward from the 1954 events of Shutter Island is…2004. That’s the year of the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment/torture scandal in Iraq. This is, at least, implicitly, the subtext of the film: a forecast of the time when America will undercut its own ideals and value system and engage in human atrocities like those Daniels witnessed in World War II.
Appropriately, as Daniels uncovers what he believes to be a conspiracy at Ashecliffe, he comes to fear that America’s future may have more to do with the Nazi past than liberty and the ideals of freedom. Ted notes, for instance, that Ashecliff is funded by HUAC (The House Committee on Un-American Activities), and that the staff is conducting illegal experiments on the criminally insane. Crazy people, he notes, are the perfect subjects: no one ever believes their stories (kind of like people we are told are terrorists…). Ted also notes that “we fought a war” to stop atrocities like this from occurring, but now it’s “happening on our soil.” If you consider Guantanamo Bay “our soil,” there’s another metaphor for the last decade.
Twice in Shutter Island, the H-Bomb is mentioned, and twice television is mentioned too. This is important. In 1953, the year before the events of the film, President Truman announced the development of the Hydrogen Bomb in January, and by February of that year, over seventy percent of American households owned television sets. If you look below the surface, the implication is that one “invention” (television) distracts attention from the other (the H-Bomb). That America was delving into violent, monstrous territory, perhaps unknowingly, as its people were enjoying the bread and circuses of a new venue for mass entertainment. And that all of this “death making” only led, eventually, to events like Abu Ghraib…a gross misuse of American power that had had been attained in previous decades.
Not incidentally, the year of this film’s action, 1954, is also the year that Huxley’s The Doors of Perception was published, and Scorsese’s film very clearly involves those doors of perception; and the swinging open of those doors for Ted. If you look at the title of the film, Shutter Island, it also contains a secret message about the nature of the narrative. A “shutter” is defined as a “person or thing that shuts” and an island, of course, is a realm of isolation and alone-ness; surrounded by water (or some other barrier, if the definition is generalized). An important character in Shutter Island is both closed or shut (like a shutter) and has made himself an island, separated from mankind and reality itself by self-made psychological barriers.
Some viewers have complained about Shutter Island’s “trick” ending, but a careful viewing reveals that everything is planned and accounted for; everything is encoded, right down to the film’s title (as dissected above). Now, certainly, one can argue coherently about the plausibility of the film’s final twist (and actually, I had some problems with it, myself…) but the movie largely plays fair with how it prepares the audience for the film’s resolution.
I probably shouldn’t go into more detail about this twist ending so as to preserve the surprise for those who haven’t watched the film yet, but let’s just say that the revelation, as it is played, requires a total commitment to conspiracy from the entire staff (literally) of Ashecliffe…down to the orderlies, plus acceptance of the fact that a dangerous man would be permitted, for several days, free run of the facility, thereby endangering staff and other patients. Again, the issue here is plausibility, not validity. Mileage may indeed vary. For me, DiCaprio’s absolutely committed performance, Robbie Robertson’s interesting and unconventional selections for the soundtrack, and Scorsese’s rock-solid (but not overtly flashy) visual approach in the end made up for some (valid) questions regarding plausibility
How do we get over our cultural guilt? By continuing to live as a monster? Or by dying as a hero? Watch that last scene in Shutter Island and determine for yourself how much the character in question knows or is actually aware of. Is he playing a “role” that the doctors expect him to play, because he can no longer live as a monster? Or he is marching forward into a dark future with no awareness and no acknowledgment of the things he has done?
It appears that many viewers and critics have gotten hung up here on process: the “how” of Shutter Island’s narrative resolution. The aspect of the film that sticks with me, however, is the “why.” The answer to that question of “why” may rest, stylistically, in the form of the film noir itself, which at its absolute best, always asks questions concerning the hero’s hidden identity (Blade Runner , Angel Heart , The Ninth Gate ),
But contextually, the “why” behind Shutter Island rests in the “guilt” of one man and the guilt of a nation. Guilt has to be exorcised one way or another, the movie tells us. With either continued denial, or acceptance of responsibility for our actions.