‘Shutter Island’: A Twist of Character

May 17, 2012 — 7 Comments

I’ve been light on posts lately, though I promise I’ll be picking up the pace soon. In the mean time, in lieu of actually writing new material I’ve decided to re-post a piece from my old site. Hope you enjoy it.

SPOILERS! for Shutter Island coming up!

Shutter Island was released in 2010 to positive audience response and the highest opening weekend box office of any Scorsese-directed feature. Strangely, the film barely got a pass from the critical community. Many commented on the impeccable filmmaking employed by Scorsese, but it seems that many also dismissed the film as a piece of genre fluff with a cheap twist ending. Unfortunately this dismissal ignores the incredibly deep character study at work in Shutter Island, and the twist is simply the key to unlocking our protagonist’s disturbed psychological state.

Some films require only one viewing to fully appreciate, but I propose that Shutter Island is not one of those films. It’s a film that uses first impressions to unnerve the audience and provide a thrilling ride through the noir genre. A quick look beyond first impressions, though, reveals a complex examination of the nature of violence, madness, monstrosity and guilt. In fact, there’s so much guilt present in Shutter Island it probably represents the ultimate Catholic nightmare. A first viewing is perfectly fine for entertainment, but a second viewing is necessary is to discover all the detail hidden in each moment of the film before the climactic twist.

When first watching the film (assuming the details of the ending have not already been spoiled), the way we view each scene or sequence is through the lens of a troubled US Marshall attempting to uncover the truth behind the goings on at Shutter Island. In the end we learn that everything we have seen was essentially the product of a delusion. In reality, Teddy Daniels, actually named Andrew Laeddis, has been a patient at the Ashecliffe Hostpital on the island for two years. He has constructed for himself an elaborate fantasy because he cannot deal with the guilt of having “allowed” his wife to kill their three children. Now, armed with this knowledge, re-watching scenes brings a new perspective and allows a deeper understanding of how the aforementioned themes relate to the plot and, more importantly, to Andrew Laeddis, the main character.

The most immediately apparent example of this is the opening scene. When I first watched the film, the opening scene came off as slightly strange, but I dismissed it as being a method of setting tone and mood. I was partly correct, but a second viewing illuminated many minute details that actually portend the third act revelations as well as reveal some very important elements of Andrew’s psyche. For example, the fact that “Teddy” first meets his new partner, Chuck, on the boat that’s already nearing Shutter Island is odd. It’s not a large boat and it’s reasonable to assume that they would have at least met at the docks just before the boat left the mainland. Chuck also corrects Andrew, saying that he is from Seattle, not Portland, but Andrew seems to find this suspect. His expression seems to imply that there is no Marshall’s office in Seattle. These details definitely take on new significance when we learn that Andrew had actually been at the institution the whole time. He wouldn’t have been to the mainland, and Chuck (actually Andrew’s primary psychiatrist) probably just made up the bit about being from Seattle, with Andrew trying to trip up his story.

This kind of detail litters the film: from the reactions of the guards and patients, to Andrew’s presence, to the Ashecliffe board member who comments gleefully on the amusing minutiae of their elaborate role-play. However, much more enlightening is that when Andrew has finished hurling his guts into the boat’s toilet he mentions that the water is making him sick. He doesn’t say that he’s suffering from seasickness, but that it is the water itself that is causing him to throw up. Initially this would seem like a minor idiosyncrasy in phrasing, but upon reflection Andrew is actually showing off a bit of his internal struggle. The water makes him sick because his children drowned.

Shutter Island actually reminds me a lot of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige, because of its uniquely well-assembled parts. Both films have twists which alter the perception of nearly every scene that came before, and they both pay attention in large part to the small details that keep it all consistent. This makes them incredibly rewarding upon re-watch because a keen viewer can observe all the areas in writing, staging and acting that actually point to the big twist. In Shutter Island this can be found in the nervous stares from the guards or the frightened reactions of a couple of the patients. These are all great plot elements that serve to make the film as a whole far more satisfying upon repeat screenings, but they alone do not make the film the success it ends up being. To find this, just as with The Prestige, we must look to how Andrew’s motivations and struggles play consistently throughout the film. We must look beyond plot structure and plot consistency to emotional structure and emotional consistency, and it’s in this area that Shutter Island truly shines.

Following Andrew throughout the film we witness his memories and dreams. By the end we come to learn that his memories may be nearly as fanciful as his dreams, but like most of the events throughout the film they are still rooted in factual events. Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley says, for example, that Andrew had been present at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, though he may not have taken part in the killing of Dachau guards. That mass slaughter, it’s implied, may not have occurred at all. But these details alone have little significance. To fully appreciate their meaning is to apply them within a deeper context. We must ask deeper questions. Why would Andrew embellish the already terrifying ordeal of the liberation? Why would he add in this particular act of vengeance only to make himself feel worse? Furthermore, why does he dream about his daughter being one of the girls in the piles of bodies?

This is where light is truly shed. Andrew is a man so consumed by the guilt of not having found help for his wife and saving his children that he relates them directly to the sight of the slaughtered Jews who also could have been saved had it not been for widespread international inaction. As a soldier he may at least have felt responsible for not having liberated the camp sooner. He also seems to feel a certain ambiguous pain about murdering his wife. In the moment she was not really his wife. He was killing a monster. Similarly in the moment at the camp he did not kill a group of human beings. They were monsters as well. But given the perspective of time he comes to the sad truth that they, like his wife, were human beings nonetheless, and killing them was simply murder. If this mass killing did not actually occur it only raises the level of emotional distress Andrew is experiencing. He is apparently so devastated by the horrific tragedy that befell his children that he not only applies it to the very real horrors he witnessed during war, he makes that memory even more painful by altering its events in his mind to more closely match his later experience.

Amazingly, this is only one area of the film that contains such layered and deep themes when viewed in light of the twist. There are many more examples, and I could likely go on for a few thousand more words. Unlike so many other thrillers that fall apart once the twist is taken into account, Shutter Island’s twist actually enhances the film to an incredible degree by focusing on emotion and character. Where the film before the twist seems to offer a mild dose of character drama in the service of entertainment, after the twist it reveals itself to be as complex and rewarding a film as anyone can hope for. The film examines the weight of horrific violence and guilt on the soul and on the mind, and it does so effectively and without ever losing sight of its wonderful genre styling. A lot of critics may have felt cheated by the ending, but I think if they re-examine the film they’ll find that Shutter Island is far more than just a good performance and a twist ending

7 responses to ‘Shutter Island’: A Twist of Character


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