Friday, January 21, 2011

Shutter Island

Scorsese is the filmmaker equivalent to an important literary figure: his works are either like school imposed requirements that render them less appealing in their “obligatory” quality or they appear too boring to excite one into viewing them. One way or another a serious film buff will eventually get around to seeing them all, but for NonModern that time has not yet arrived.

That being said Shutter Island looked just enticing enough, and received enough critical disdain to make it an appealing movie in the 2010 crop. It was obvious from the moment one viewed the trailer that it was one of those “twist ending” stories—and that the twist would be just as obvious from the get go—but those films can be fun…

The twist is indeed clear from the beginning—to a point. There is a lot involved in this particular twist, and the full reveal is enjoyable. However, this is a film created to be seen for the second time.

Take The Sixth Sense for example. In that film the twist ending was the primary raison d’être. Repeat viewings were made enjoyable as one searched for the clues that one had missed the first time and for the sheer thrill of the creepiness of the film.

Here in Scorsese’s Shutter Island there is another effect at work. The twist is guessed (for the most part) from the beginning. As the story unfolds, the viewer is picking up a sense that things are “off” and trying to figure out how everything is going to lead to the foreseen reveal. When it eventually comes, it is bigger than was initially guessed and one realizes that there was way more going on the whole time. The second viewing is such a joy because it is not an exercise in finding the clues left along the way. It is a realization that everything fit into the puzzle. There was no trail of clues; just a story clearly being told in which everyone save the protagonist and the viewer knew what was going on the whole time.

While this aspect of the film is very entertaining, aspects of the story are hard to stomach. Some of what goes on in the prison, the flashbacks to Dachau, and the dreams are too much for some viewers. Not scary so much as intense. And the last flashback in the film is almost too much. Hitchcock (whom Scorsese is being vaguely compared to with Shutter Island) was given a LOT of grief for killing off a little boy in Sabotage. Scorsese outdoes Hitchcock here by several degrees.

Two more points stand out in closing:

The first is the single conversation Leo’s character has with the warden of the prison. He is found by the warden after going missing all night.

“Taking a leisurely stroll, were we?”

“I was uh...just...just looking around.”

“Did you enjoy god's latest gift?”


“God's gift.” He points to the sky and the aftermath of the Hurricane. “The violence. When I came downstairs in my home and I saw a tree in my living room, it reached out for me like a divine hand. God loves violence.”

“I...I hadn't noticed.”

“Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it? It's in us. It's what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because god gave us violence to wage in his honor.”

“I thought god gave us moral order.”

“There's no moral order as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this; can my violence conquer yours?”

In this exchange we realize (as usual) that the warden was aware of more than we or Teddy realized. However, it also exposes that the world of this story—and our reality as it is reflected here—is full of monsters. The criminally insane prisoners are not the only violent evil doers in this (or our) world. Everyone is capable of terrible evil. Everyone is a potential monster. It is society and its barriers that decide who are the acceptable monsters and who are the ones who need to be locked up. And sometimes—as Teddy all too well knows from his experiences in Europe—the whole society is itself a monster.

The second conversation that stands out is the final one between Teddy and his partner. Most of it is verbatim from the book, but the film adds an additional sentence:

“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”

Unfortunately, the film’s answer to that question—to the guilt that Teddy and humanity face—is the “easy out” that most of society has chosen. Rather than recognize the wrong we do and face the guilt that we feel, we prefer to build up elaborate flights of fancy and deny that guilt even exists. We say things like, “Sure I’ve done bad things in my life, but I have no regrets.” Or “Guilt is just something that society imposes on us to control us.” The reason that we do this, and the reason that this story sees that as the only option, is because we see no redemption, no way to find forgiveness for the guilt we feel. In Shutter Island there is no source of forgiveness. In reality most of society has rejected it, or doubts its existence.

What would be worse would be to die as a monster without accepting the chance to live as a good man.


  1. I have been wantng to watch this but didn't know if it would be worth it or not. I think I may nnow.

  2. Cool, Emily. Just remember that this review is tagged as "not a recommendation." That does not mean I don't like the film, just that there are things in this movie that I know will offend some people!


NonModernBlog written content is the copyrighted property of Jason Dietz. Header photos and photos in posts where indicated are the copyrighted property of Jason and Cheryl Dietz.
Promotional photos such as screenshots or posters and links to the trailers of reviewed content are the property of the companies that produced the original content and no copyright infringement is intended.
It is believed that the use of a limited number of such material for critical commentary and discussion qualifies as fair use under copyright law.

  © Blogger template Brownium by 2009

Back to TOP