Shutter Island is an excellent movie that many good critics have found mediocre. If you see it, you’ll either love it or you’ll just leave the theater thinking “Huh?” It’s a movie that requires the viewer to engage, I almost want to say participate, in its various mysteries. If you watch it from a distance, if it doesn’t immediately grip you into going along for the ride, you’ll find it ridiculous: many of the characters seem like such stereotypes; the story feels completely implausible. If, however, you identify with the hero, Teddy Daniels, from the beginning and try to uncover the mystery along with him, I think you’ll find the film-watching experience transcendent. I definitely did, and I recommend seeing the movie in theaters (since the big screen more readily provides the level of engrossment that you want when watching this movie).
Then after you have seen it, read below the fold for my spoiler-ridden thoughts about the film.
Shutter Island makes the viewer feel as if they were a delusional schizophrenic. That’s why it’s such a good movie
It’s a difficult to envision yourself in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic; their view of the world seems so outlandish even just in terms of the big picture — why would I be important enough for the CIA to come after? That’s before you even get to the little things, the constant stream of little details that don’t match your story — If my roommate’s a secret government agent, why does he never pay his half of the rent? You can always explain these details away (because he’s trying to fool me; obviously he just wants me to think he’s not a secret agent), but it requires constant mental effort. Every new fact about the world is just a trap to trip you up and fool you into thinking that the conspiracy against you isn’t real.
Watching a suspense thriller presents a similar experience to the moviegoer. The initial setup is typically implausible, but you go along with it to enjoy the movie (and, after all, that’s what movies are for). The details, the small inconsistencies, can be (depending on the quality of the movie) important clues to the true nature of the plot and just stupid inconsistencies. In either event, while watching a suspense thriller (or at least one where mystery is important) the viewer finds herself in a state of epistemic uncertainty, constantly questioning what the clues really mean and whether the details in the movie are even clues at all.
The genius of Martin Scorcese in Shutter Island is to juxtapose the viewer’s experience of a mystery with a story about (essentially) a paranoid schizophrenic delusion. The constant uncertainty throughout the movie (is the mental institution hiding something? how’d Rachel Solando escape? who’s Teddy Daniel’s partner? and, most of all, Is Teddy crazy?) forces the viewer to empathize completely with the experience of the schizophrenic hero, Teddy Daniels, who, it turns out, is valiantly trying to preserve his own delusion in the face of the overwhelming evidence against him.
What does a moviegoer do when spare details in the movie, the dialogue, its texture, its feel, seem a bit off, when they don’t quite fit? She has three choices: first, she can just disengage from the movie: this isn’t a good film; there’s no reason to get emotionally wrapped up in it. This, I think is the source of the mixed reviews of Shutter Island. Many viewers (and reviewers) watch the movie and its deliberately mannered surfaces, with the cliched 50s dialogue between Daniels and his partner at the beginning, and basically give up less than a third of the way through. They watch it from a remove and get nothing out of it. The mentally ill, of course, do not really have that option (or perhaps they do in embracing sanity, but that’s no fun).
The second choice for the viewer is to just disregard the incongruity, pretend it doesn’t exist — the interaction between the intrepid investigator Daniels and Ben Kingsley’s stonewalling doctor seems too standard and typical for a director of Scorcese’s caliber, but I as a viewer will just file it away and keep watching. This approach has costs of its own; it’s disorienting to the viewer; where once the viewer’s perception of the movie and the movie’s presentation of itself lay flat against once another, now space (and consequently, friction) has been introduced between them. This moviegoing response echoes the delusional Daniels’s perception of reality, alluding to his own distress at his constant observations about the world that he must ignore. Each avoidance distances himself from reality, making the external world more and more troubling and difficult to deal with. A sense of disorientation sets in for the viewer in watching Shutter Island — what’s going on? is Teddy just crazy? — and it almost feels as if you’ve been drugged.
Finally, the third response offers some solace for the viewer: she can dive deeper down the rabbit hole. Each strange part of the movie actually just makes sense if you figure out the right explanation. If the schizophrenic embraces his delusion further, he can explain away any troubling fact and can always create a reasonable narrative — maybe Ben Kingsley is too creepy to be a benevolent psychiatrist, but if he’s actually a secret government experimenter, it all makes sense. There’s a great moment for this when Daniel’s partner (played by Mark Ruffalo) mentions to him the possibility that Daniels was tricked by the government into coming to Shutter Island, that really these events were all just a plot to trap him. As a viewer, this moment in the movie is immensely satisfying, because it’s a revelation that makes perfect sense and seems to explain so much of the action so far. As a viewer, however, this moment of revelation doesn’t lead to a rational, considered reflection of whether the previous facts and incongruities in the movie fit into this modified new explanation. Instead, the statement just feels right, and the mind races with the possibilities. Indeed, so exhilarating is this elaboration of the movie’s delusion that I then, as a viewer, immediately jump to the next possible deduction: perhaps Teddy’s partner is himself a plant by evil plot against Teddy (but ah, why did the partner give Teddy the very idea that Teddys presence at the island might have been planned? Perhaps he just wanted to convince Teddy that he’s trustworthy). My stomach turns with fear for the hero and the movie has become that much more satisfying and that much more real to me in embracing the delusion, much in the same way that Teddy’s own life becomes more meaningful and acceptable as his explanations become more elaborate and outlandish.
The fact that the details of a typical cinematic thriller (a troubled U.S. Marshall whose wife died in a fire must investigate a secret government Cold War research facility masquerading as a mental hospital) mirror so closely the details of a paranoid delusion makes the comparison all the more appropriate, and here’s where Scorcese implicitly offers another piece of commentary on what it’s like to be delusional and to be a moviegoer. Shutter Island is filled with references and allusions to previous movies and is clearly suffused with standard B-movie tropes (I’ve mentioned some of them above). Given the surface slickness of many of these tropes and how played-out they feel, such touches initially distance the viewer from the movie (making it seem more artificial) rather than drawing her in, but I think Scorcese’s point in including all of these cliches is to show the viewer how someone delusional (and by extension, the viewer) creates their own worldview; they access the visual and narrative grammar of Hollywood stories and popular art. In this way, our own view of the world is built not just of the objective facts and observations that we personally know, but from the stories and delusions of others, which help provide a way of understanding the world. The fact that Scorcese is not only able to promulgate that message intellectually but to make the moviegoer feel Teddy Daniel’s constant search for reality throughout the film, is indeed what makes Shutter Island such a great movie and one that I plan to see again.