Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
“Which would be worst, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” asked Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio) to Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), before leaving his partner befuddled by his rhetorical remark, the understated wisdom of which seems to betray the belief that would lead to Teddy’s undisclosed but obvious fate. These last words that Teddy imparted to Chuck, when read alongside the various conversations, dialogues, and revelations that happened prior, implores for a discourse on Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island that goes beyond both the director’s utilization of his undisputed mastery over the film language or the narrative twists and conceits that have been employed.
It is inescapable in this post-Sixth Sense film-going culture that Shutter Island would be met with assessments based primarily on how the reveal has been successfully or unsuccessfully pulled off. Admittedly, there’s some sort of pleasure to be derived in participating in a cinematic mind game that has been carefully laid out to leave you guessing until the end. However, to situate Shutter Island in the same level as all those films that primarily rely on their twists for novelty is to oversimplify the seductive complexities of Scorsese’s film.
Indeed, Shutter Island is a seductive film. Robert Richardson’s cinematography here --- the sun-drenched exteriors of the Ashecliff, the dimly-lit interiors of its Civil War fort-turned-mental facility, the surreal hues of Teddy’s recurring dreams and hallucinations --- is simply exquisite. While no original music was composed for the film, Robbie Robertson makes use of existing music --- anything from Gustav Mahler to John Cage --- to weirdly apt consequences, creating feelings of fear or forthcoming angst out of the beautiful images that Richardson has conjured for Scorsese. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker creates magic by weaving together these scenes to result in a strangely grandiose and operatic explicitly genre effort, and by cutting sequences, from something as unnoticeable as that scene where Chuck gives one of the patients being interviewed a glass of water cutting quickly to POV shot of the patient drinking from an invisible glass and then cutting back to the medium shot as if nothing suspicious has happened, to compound the cinematic sleight-of hand.
Simply put, Shutter Island is one glorious picture. As orchestrated by Scorsese and his immense understanding of film and film history, Shutter Island transcends the limitations of its narrative and its genre, rightfully earning its place in that prestigious line-up of films also known as Scorsese’s filmography
However, Scorsese does not only make technically proficient films. From Mean Streets (1973) to The Departed (2006), Scorsese, notwithstanding the drastically increasing budgets and their appurtenant studio interference, has never failed to imbibe his films with at least a modicum of discourse on the relationship of violence or sexuality (but mostly, violence) with humanity. Scorsese never inhibited himself in portraying violence as it should be. Unlike the multitude of directors who have made a niche in equating violence with entertainment, Scorsese does more with violence than utilize it as the end-all of his filmmaking. What I believe he does in his films is to impart a reality that our very existence as human beings has provided for us a need for violence. Violence is what situates us with nature; on the other hand, it is our capacity to control, convert or countenance violence is what differentiates us from nature. Scorsese, through his films, has explored the rudiments of man’s affair with violence, situating it within societal norms, moral codes, religious tenets, historical perspectives and cultural situations, and in turn. His films tend to push forward a calculated discourse on the functions of these man-made concepts in the midst of an uncontrollably natural urge for bloodshed.
Shutter Island, unlike Scorsese’s earlier films where the violent man is hindered by the requirements and expectations of society to the point of extinguishing it completely or rationalizing it, has violence up front and center. From the film’s opening, where booming horns accompany Teddy, first seen suffering from seasickness in the ferry’s lavatory, as he and Chuck make their way to Shutter Island, Scorsese already raises expectations of things to come, with the main character on the verge of exploding, especially with the host of events (uncooperative employees of the mental institute; the storm whether its gravity is merely an outward realization of Teddy’s internal turmoil or real; his recurring dreams and hallucinations) that only foretell fate’s invitation to react wantonly.
Thus, most of the film seems to be an awkward affair for Teddy as he becomes more and more alienated, only to be left guarded from turning uncontrollably violent by the badge and duty he possesses and the guilt he bears. Preventing Teddy from turning into a monster are the defenses he has concocted. Absent them, he is naked to his history and its repercussions, making him volatile to his humanity’s primal capabilities to destroy and fully acknowledging, comprehending and allowing them, and worse, to eliminate guilt, the element that functions as a reminder of permanent moral codes, altogether.
In a film that exploits humanity devoid of sanity and rationality, Teddy’s last statement is a refreshing moment of clear reason. It also situates the unbridled manifestations of man’s capacity for violence within the context of a revived but broken morality. Knowing fully well the extent of our capacity to be monsters, it seems that these emotions and memories which would eventually fuel our innate violent selves are nothing more than disposable components in humanity’s quixotic quest to live a life free of pain and guilt. As it seems, sanity is as much a curse as insanity has equated itself to innocence.