Alone in Bad Company: A Dissection of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels

Martin Scorsese has seen it all. After a two-score year long journey in which he had experienced the highs and the lows of the business, the director has frequently been hailed ‘America’s greatest living filmmaker’ in recent years and was finally even awarded the elusive Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing for The Departed in 2007. Quite an accomplishment, a few might say, for someone who seems to be out-of-time in the Hollywood industry for various reasons.

Martin Scorsese, for starters, has mostly been as uncompromising as they may come in those circles. His pictures are personal and usually deal with dislikeable, violent and slightly psychotic characters most people are repelled by. But the director is drawn to those outsiders, once having been quoted as saying: ‘If it’s not personal, I can’t be there in the morning.’ He can identify with those he puts on screen, developing empathy for them and even going as far as comparing himself to them. Scorsese always regarded himself as an “odd man out” when growing up as an asthmatic, frail boy among the tough guys on the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy and, for the most part, saw himself in a similar fashion within the film business. Thus, he once commented after one of his five previous failures at winning the Academy Award as Best Director: ‘When I lost for Raging Bull, that’s when I realized what my place in the system would be, on the outside looking in.’

Since his renaissance in the early 1990s, however, the filmmaker has mellowed a little, earning his spurs as a producer and also agreeing to direct a couple of movies that were more commercial than his previous products while still retaining the qualities of a Scorsese picture. His new formula was ‘one for them, one for me,’ and he went on record saying that he treated those ‘genre pictures’ like ‘exercises in technique’ to improve his directorial skills.  Nowadays, the former enfant terrible of the Hollywood industry, who has never been a stranger to controversy, is considered to be an ‘unofficial poet laureate’ of American film. Martin Scorsese has always been acclaimed for his personal projects like the gangster flicks. Yet ironically enough, the peak of his recognition as a power player proved to be The Departed, one of the aforementioned commercial vehicles. Finally having gotten rid of the monkey on his back by taking home the one trophy he had longed for all of his life as a filmmaker, the question for his next feature ultimately had to be: can he do it again? Could Martin Scorsese create a perfect balance between his own artistic ambitions and audience expectations?

His latest outing, Shutter Island, is adapted from the novel of the same name by American writer Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the book on which two-time Oscar winner Mystic River is based.  Set in New England in 1954, it is atmospherically reminiscent of a classic film noir. The director is perfectly familiar with that genre, having previously used similar elements in works like Taxi Driver, After Hours or the remake of Cape Fear.  U.S. Marshal Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels is sent to investigate the escape of serial murderer Rachel Solando from her locked room at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on the remote Shutter Island.  Soon after he and his new partner Chuck Aule arrive there, however, Teddy starts to hallucinate within a gloomy atmosphere of heavy rainfalls, thunderstorms, floods and darkness. He has visions of dead children and is taken back to his time as a soldier serving in the Second World War. In flashbacks, the audience learns that the protagonist was among the liberators of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. The deceased children ask him, ‘Why can’t you save me?’ and tell him, ‘You should have saved me. You should have saved all of us.’ Teddy also sees images of his dead wife ordering him to find a patient called Andrew Laeddis, a pyromaniac who set the house Teddy lived in on fire and thus killed the Marshal’s family. He initiates investigations about this man and, of course, about Rachel.  But the deeper he digs into the matter, the more he becomes trapped in a Hitchcockian nightmare.

A walking encyclopaedia of film history, Martin Scorsese tends to use countless references and allusions to other works in his films, and Shutter Island is no exception. Its tone is comparable to several films of the English master of suspense. There is a rock-climbing scene that bears resemblance to North By Northwest, the ascent of a very tall building similar to the one in Vertigo, a creepy man-in-the-shadows introduction borrowed from “Notorious” and a nod to the famous shower scene from Psycho, to name a few.  This comes as no surprise, as Scorsese has cited Alfred Hitchcock as one of his favorite directors, and one whose films he still frequently watches.

Water itself plays an important role in Shutter Island, anyway. The shower sequence can be seen as a sort of baptism, an attempt at purifying the protagonist’s highly traumatized soul, while the floods and heavy rainfalls in the midst of the sinister atmosphere hint at Scorsese’s own masterpiece, Taxi Driver.  ‘All the animals come out at night,’ says Travis Bickle, the film’s deluded protagonist: ‘Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.’ This is evocative of the terrifying inhabitants of Shutter Island’s House of Horrors whose deaths would eradicate the vermin from society — at least in the mind of Teddy.  Water further functions to trap the protagonist. He is stranded on a prison island that brings Alcatraz to mind in an anti-robinsonade. ‘You’ll never get away from here,’ one of the two Rachel Solandos appearing in front of his deluded eyes tells him. Whenever the U.S. Marshal intends to leave the place, he finds beastly weather conditions kicking in. They prevent him from doing so, as if by divine intervention and recalling the wrath of the God of the Old Testament.

Teddy cannot ‘escape from devil’s island’ (in another ironic twist, this was the title of one of the exploitation films Scorsese was offered when trying to break into the film business in the early 1970s).  The longer he is forced to stay there, the more he descends into his own personal hell, and the audience accompanies him on his journey into madness. ‘The Truth is Out There’ was the tagline of The X-Files, an incredibly popular mystery series from the 1990s.  And, while Teddy embarks on his search for exactly that, he has to ask himself who he can trust.  This holds especially true when the same Rachel Solando tells him: ‘Marshal, you have no friends.’ He is ‘alone – in bad company’ (Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary), unable to rely on anyone, ‘God’s lonely man’ (once again, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

Yet the same goes for the audience, who sees everything from the protagonist’s point of view and follows his every move.  In this context, Shutter Island is highly subjective. Not only does Teddy need to ask himself who he can trust but the viewer must ask himself whether the Marshal is really a totally reliable narrator.  This is also a common feature of the short stories written by Bierce, who is another constantly underappreciated enfant terrible. Teddy suffers from a trauma, which Dr. Naehring, a sinister shrink working at the institution, connects to ‘dream’ via the German word ‘Traum.’  The audience participates in the main character’s oneiric state as his world disintegrates around him. He is, according to George Noyce (one of the hospital’s ‘prisoners’), a ‘rat in a maze,’ moving in circles without making any real progress. But Teddy does not give up easily. Drawn to the island’s lighthouse, in which experiments on the human mind are apparently conducted, the Marshal sets out to find an answer to the question, ‘Who is Number 67?,’ ostensibly the ominous missing patient.  On his way, a warden approaches him. He says that he knows Teddy and his aggressive antics well, that they fit in with the behaviour of the other captives, and that such outbursts in the dog-eat-dog fashion are part of human nature: ‘God gave us violence to wage in his honor.’ This description of the main character corresponds to what George Noyce told him earlier – that Teddy deformed him and had him sent to Shutter Island. Thus, the further the Marshal investigates, the blurrier the whole picture becomes.

When the protagonist finally reaches the lighthouse, he is in for a surprise. What follows is a twist in the tale which would make Ambrose Bierce proud. The audience learns that Teddy Daniels is, in fact, Andrew Laeddis (an anagram of the former name), and that it was actually his wife who murdered their children. Upon finding her and the deceased young ones, he shot her in a violent fit and was subsequently put into Ashecliffe as a traumatized patient considered a menace to society.  Because he could not deal with what happened, Teddy (or rather, Andrew) created a fantasy in which he played the role of a hero. Rachel Solando (actually an anagram for his wife’s maiden name, Dolores Chanal) is part of it. In order to return Laeddis to reality, head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley, along with Dr. Sheehan, his shrink for two years and the man he thought to be his partner Chuck, invented an experiment to let Andrew act out his fantasy.  After a while, Teddy accepts the facts.  Yet, he falls back into his invented self shortly after. Eventually, he gives in and agrees to undergo lobotomy to free him from his delusions and violent behaviour, asking whether it is better live as a monster or to die as a good man.

There are several clues along the way that Teddy Daniels is really Andrew Laeddis. But the viewer tends to misread or ignore them upon watching the film for the first time. This is similar to the surprise endings of the Bierce short stories that often require multiple readings to detect them all. Finding Andrew Laeddis and the mysterious patient Number 67 is Teddy’s supposed motivation to enter the island rather than the disappearance of Rachel Solando. He wants to avenge his family’s death. The imaginary Rachel only serves as the evil side of his wife, who is otherwise depicted as angelic. In this respect, Teddy is a prototypical Scorsese character. The director’s characters often suffer from what psychologists call a ‘Madonna-whore complex’ (for example in Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull).  To them, women can only be either sinners or saints but nothing in between. Dolores, who would represent both extremes in her manic-depressive makeup, is therefore seen as a replacement-Madonna by the protagonist. As a matter of fact, with her blonde hair and general appearance she resembles women from other Scorsese films who may look like angels but hardly behave as such.

Given the fact that The Departed was the biggest jointly commercial and critical success of Martin Scorsese’s career, it was a tough act to follow. The hype about the film was certainly helped by its all-star cast consisting of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, and the director assembled yet another bona fide bunch of actors for Shutter Island.  The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio (his favourite leading man and male muse of recent years) as Teddy Daniels, Mark Ruffalo in the role of Chuck Aule, former Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley as head psychiatrist Dr. Cawley, Max von Sydow as the sinister Dr. Naehring and Michelle Williams as Teddy’s wife Dolores. While the director brought back several of his regular crew members for Shutter Island (such as editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been with the filmmaker for three decades), the picture also retains various key elements of a typical Scorsese. First of all, there are a multitude of allusions to other works. Second, the protagonist is a lonesome rider, an outsider who does not belong to the society he is thrown into. Third, the narration is not totally linear. It is frequently interrupted by Teddy’s visions or flashbacks.  This is another common feature of a Scorsese film – a protagonist who is violent and suffers from mental instability. While the main character is exactly that, a traumatized, aggressive, maniacal, lonely man, the audience still identifies and develops empathy with him, which usually happens when watching one of the director’s movies.  So what to make of Shutter Island?  It is certainly not up to par with Martin Scorsese’s most intimate films, the quasi-canonized masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or GoodFellas because the subject is not impregnated in the filmmaker’s DNA. But since he is a film scholar, he can easily make excellent commissioned pictures while maintaining the tone of his greatest works. Shutter Island is, like its predecessors The Aviator and The Departed, a compromise between the personal cinema of Scorsese and the audience-drawing Hollywood approach. Even though it may not be the absolute highlight of the director’s illustrious career, it is enjoyable throughout — a great modern day film noir after the order of Alfred Hitchcock, and a good one at that.

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