Movie Review: Shutter Island (Martin Sorsese, 2010)
Shutter Island, the cinematic thriller by director, Martin Scorsese, adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, presents a choice between two narratives. Reality is skewed in the movie. Tension unfolds in an purposeful, ambiguous way, forcing the audience to choose between reality and delusion, normalcy and ‘insanity.’
The story takes place in 1954, during the Cold War. World War II veteran and US Marshall, Teddy Daniels, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule, (Mark Ruffalo) go to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a patient who seems to have vanished from a locked room. Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head psychiatrist, explains that Rachel was institutionalized after drowning her three children. She believes, however, she is still at home and her children are still alive. Dr. Cawley refuses to share any of the patients’ files and implies Rachel may be dead. The island is surrounded by steep, jagged cliffs and crashing waves, the nearby lighthouse was already searched and a heavy storm is rolling in. However, inside Rachel’s room, Teddy finds a hidden note with the message “who is 67?” The meaning is unclear and Teddy begins investigating further.
That night, early in the movie, Teddy has a dream about his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire two years before. In the dream, Dolores tells Teddy that Rachel is still on the island as well as Andrew Laeddis, the man who started the fire that killed her.
The next morning, Teddy interviews patients from Rachel’s group therapy sessions. While Teddy’s partner is briefly away, one seemingly ‘normal’ patient writes him a note that says “RUN.” Shortly after, Teddy tells his partner, Chuck, the real reason why he’s investigating Ashecliffe. According to Teddy, Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist who killed his wife, got off for the death. A year later, Teddy says he saw a newspaper article in which Laeddis was found to have burnt down a school and sent to Ashecliff, where he vanished. Chuck asks Teddy what he intends to do once he finds Andrew Laeddis and mentions killing him. Teddy explains he’s had enough of death and recalls his traumatic part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, including an extra-legal mass execution of the Nazi guards. Instead, Teddy says, he wants to find out the truth. From a colleague he heard that Ashecliff was funded by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Teddy says he met a former patient, a student named George Noyce (Jackie Earle Hawley), who killed three people after being at Ashecliff for a year. Teddy thinks the staff is conducting experiments on the human mind. He tells to his partner he’s there to find proof, go back to the mainland and expose it. His partner says they should be careful and agrees something isn’t right about the place. “What if they wanted you here?” Chuck asks Teddy. They agree to find the proof and get off the island.
Back at the hospital, Teddy walks into a conversation between Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), the chief of staff at the hospital, about how they should prepare the violent patients of Ward C in the event the electricity goes down during the storm. Teddy notes Dr. Naehring is German, implying he was a Nazi recruited through the Office of Strategic Services. Through briefly listening to the conversation, Teddy picks up on the fact that there are 66 patients at the hospital. Remembering the note he found in Rachel Solando’s room, Teddy asks the hospital administration who Rachel thought the 67th patient was. Cawley claims he doesn’t know but says Rachel was found near the lighthouse Teddy can ask her himself, Dr. Cawely says.
During the interview, Rachel has no recollection of being missing. She still thinks her life is normal. Teddy is introduced to her as a police officer who’s investigating ‘communist subversives passing out literature.’ She claims Teddy is her husband and embraces him, but shortly after becomes upset, stating that her husband is dead and shouting, ‘who the fuck are you?’
After interviewing Rachel, Teddy’s dreams continue. At Dachau, a young girl who is seen throughout Teddy’s visions tells him, “you should have saved me, you should have saved all of us.” Teddy briefly talks to Laeddis and his partner, Chuck, before finding Rachel and helping her re-drown her children. He supposedly wakes up and has another delusion: his dead wife, Dolores, walks in the room and tells him Laeddis is still alive and on the island. She tells Teddy to find Laeddis and kill him.
Teddy wakes up and due to the storm, many of the patients have escaped. Teddy and his partner decide to go to Ward C to investigate. There Teddy gets separated from his partner but runs into George Noyce, the former patient of Ashecliff Teddy had previously interviewed. Noyce tells Teddy the whole thing is a game and says he’s afraid of going to the lighthouse.
Teddy tries to go to the lighthouse, but high-tide prevents him. Instead, Teddy discovers a cave and to his surprise the real Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson). She explains she was a doctor at Ashecliff who was institutionalized after questioning shipments of psychotropic drugs and experimental surgeries. She says she was called insane: “reasonable protests are called acts of denial.” According to Solando, mind control experiments are being conducted at Ashecliff to create ghost agents for the Cold War. Rachel warns Teddy the same may be happening to him, but kicks him out of the cave for fear the staff will find her when they come looking for him.
After entering the lighthouse, Teddy finds Dr. Cawley and the plot twist is revealed: Cawley says Teddy is Andrew Laeddis. Cawley tells the protagonist he has been at Ashecliff for two years, ever since killing his wife after she drowned their three children. ‘Teddy Daniels,’ ‘Rachel Solando’ and the investigation is all a delusion he’s created to avoid the painful truth. Chuck appears, claiming to be Teddy’s primary care physician, Dr. Sheehan, the man previously thought to be Rachel Solando’s vacationing physician. Dr. Cawley displays a picture of the young girl from Teddy’s dreams, and tells him it’s his daughter. Cawley says they’ve been unsuccessful in getting him to accept reality with the treatments they’ve tried. Cawley says they let him play out his detective fantasy with the hopes it would bring him back to reality without ‘relapsing’ into believing he’s Teddy again, as had previously happened. “You’ve been running around this place for two days. Where are the Nazi experiments?” Cawley asks. Speaking in humanitarian terms, Cawley says he hopes this therapy will be a breakthrough in psychiatry, one which will forgo the need for more drastic measures. If Teddy doesn’t come to terms with the fact that he’s really Andrew Laeddis, the next step will be to give him a lobotomy.
Distraught, at first the protagonist denies it but then has another vision, this time seeing Dr. Cawley’s scenario play out: an alcoholic with a manic-depressant wife, he comes home to find his three children drowned and shoots his wife, Dolores. He thinks he is Andrew Laeddis and not Teddy Daniels. He believe Cawley’s story.
In the last scene, the protagonist appears to have ‘reset,’ again thinking he’s Teddy Daniels investigating disappearances at the hospital. Dr. Sheehan, who is sitting next to the protagonist, quietly shakes his head while looking at Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring, themselves watching anxiously. The movie ends in a moment of high drama. Before going with the staff for experimental brain surgery in the lighthouse, the protagonist looks at his ‘partner’ and asks, “which is worse, to live as a monster or die as a good man?”
In Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the audience is forced to choose between two narratives. Is the movie a fiction about Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall who, after investigating Cold War-era, mind control experiments on Shutter Island, falls into an elaborate conspiracy in which he becomes a victims of such experiments? Or, was the story an elaborate fantasy of Andrew Laeddis, who killed his wife two years previously and created the delusion of Teddy Daniels to shield himself from the truth?
During the period in which the movie is set, the Office of Strategic Services and CIA did experiment with drugs such as LSD on US and Kanadian citizens, recruiting Nazi scientists to do so. Through MK-Ultra, the US government secretly sought to implant thoughts and memories and to control the mind, hoping to create agents for Cold War operations.
From the movie’s opening scene we notice something is amiss. Daniels wakes up ill on a ferry to Shutter Island. He can’t find his cigarettes and is given one by his new partner who he’s meeting for the first time. Throughout the movie, we see Daniels smoking other people’s cigarettes and taking medicine and beverages the faculty at the institution give him. He goes to Shutter Island specifically to investigate mind control experiments and possible connections with HUAC and Amerika’s Cold War policy. Unfortunately for him, he finds what he’s looking for.
Scorsese’s ambiguity, i.e. that he can make the audience question what is real and make them think Daniels may be Laeddis, is a testament to the ongoing delusion of Amerikans today. The choice Sorsese’s offers in the movie translates into real life. Is there something sinister underneath Amerika’s facade; or, is Teddy Daniels- an analogy for anyone who seriously questions and challenges Amerika’s dominant pretenses- abnormal in someway, unstable, delusional, paranoid, etc.? This is precisely the question one must answer while watching Shutter Island.
Like the scripted intrigue which ensnares Teddy, Amerika’s culture is a charade which both covers up for and reflects that which it ultimately serves. In the movie, Dr. Cawley frequently couches his work in ‘progressive’ pretenses even though he is an active accomplice to horrible crimes. Similarly, Amerika promotes itself as ‘progressive’ while simultaneously acting as the greatest global purveyor of violence, both direct and structural.
Teddy, the individual dissident, is pushed to accept a dominant narrative through immense social pressure. In Amerika however, such ‘programming’ isn’t the result of a well-coordinated conspiracy, but a function of imperialism: the bribery of empire’s citizens with stolen wealth.
For anti-imperialists, Teddy Daniels final words are compelling: “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” Perhaps this should not be taken as a literal choice between selling-out or dying in a blaze of moralistic glory. For us in the First World, being a monster and being perceived as a ‘good person’ are in many ways synonymous: both reflect acquiescence to the system. Thus, once we know the truth, the choice becomes different. Will we succumb to the pressures of First World society and play along, i.e. living as what we know to be a monster? Or, will we continue to inquire and resist, deny the system our active complicity and refuse to be a ‘good person’ by Amerika’s standards?