Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Meaning of Shutter Island

Okay, so the other night Michele and I watched the movie Shutter Island. Maybe you've seen it. If not, you probably saw the promos. The film was released back in February of this year. It was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who routinely turns in great performances, with no exception here.

Afterwards, I went to see some of the online discussion. What I found was a big disappointment. Not that I went looking for very long, but of the reviews I did come across none of them talked about the political dimension of this film. Why not? (spoiler alert!)

For those who haven't (yet) seen this movie, here's one reviewer's quick take on how it begins: Two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, are summoned to a remote and barren island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island’s fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane.

As the story unfolds, viewers encounter a common narrative device: the difference between perception and reality. Things aren't as they seem, which raises the challenge of distinguishing the two.

But here's what I found really strange about most of the interpretations and reviews that I read about this movie. To a one, they all considered Shutter Island a psychological study of the main character. I saw it much more as a political allegory.

Why? Well, for one thing, at least three characters on Shutter Island make references to things like atomic weapons and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not to mention that at an earlier time in his life, the main character had been one of the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. Several other related parts of Shutter Island convinced me that this story isn't so much a "psychological thriller" about Teddy Daniels, the main character. Instead, it's more like a parable about the craze-inducing responsibility of being the United States of America, the world's superpower.

For example, why is it significant that the main character was a U.S. soldier in WWII, one who liberated a death camp no less? Sounds like American guilt to me. . . . Sure we got involved in the War. But that was only after Pearl Harbor dragged us in kicking and screaming. By then it was way too late for millions of European Jews. And it wasn't like we hadn't heard news about their plight. We just didn't want to believe it.

The good news, of course, is that we--the good guys with right on our side--successfully ended the war, . . . by dropping atomic bombs on two cities. But we would make up for any sins of omission or commission, we told ourselves. Or at least we could prevent those sorts of ugly things from happening again. How? By becoming vigilant. So vigilant, in fact, that at one point in the 1950s we were more than ready to see a Communist behind every tree. Of course, almost all of these people protested that they weren't Communists. But what would you expect them to say?

At the end of the film, Teddy Daniels, the DiCaprio character with a history he barely knows, has a question: Which would be worse? To live as a monster, or die as a good man? That's the question that won't leave the U.S. alone. Even when America exercises its power with the best of intentions--and our intentions are never so pure as that--it's not uncommon for many thousands of people inside and outside this country to experience our actions as nothing short of monstrous. The movie insinuates that if your American patriotism reacts with thoughts like: "But what about our commitment to international freedom and liberty?" and "What about all of the good that we do?" then you're Teddy Daniels, the man who knows only one part of his story, only one side of his identity.

But what other alternative is there, except for the monster to cease to exist? The ending of the movie insinuates that that is exactly what will happen in the future. The moral order, the law of sowing and reaping will eventually neutralize the United States.

Did anyone else see the film this way? Or should I be committed to the island?


Anonymous said...

i enjoyed the movie and didn't think about any of that, but it's not too far out.

I think we are more interested in a personal story than a national one.

dicaprio's character was interesting, and even more interesting after the twist surprise

but I do enjoy dissection of art as much as the next guy, I actually started a blog post dealing with the sociological metaphors in different horror genre but never finished it and now Halloween is over

Dee Andrews said...

I had not thought about the political aspects of Shutter Island, either, Frank, but agree with you now that I AM thinking about them.

Even in my own immediate family, I have been struck recently at how several have "revised" history to suit their needs right now. I think many in America have done the same thing.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Save that post and publish it when you get ready. I'd like to see it. I think a lot of horror flicks are political and social commentary. If they're not, then they should be, right?


I think history typically works that way. It's a tool that gets used to build up or tear down national self-esteem, etc. And I think that individuals and families tend to interpret their own unique histories so that they're coherent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this! Im studying this film and have been looking for some kind of content on historical setting and what not.

Mary said...

Thank you, I can't believe so many reputable critics completely ignored the political and cultural dimension of being Europe's liberator personified in Teddy's conflicted consciousness. It is truly brilliant and without it, you miss a huge piece of the film...the fact that it is woven into a personal tragedy of such intensity is exactly what brings home the horror of the U.S. role in bringing an end to WWII. Americans don't like that duality and its no wonder, as the "good guy" and "land of the free" don't square with the horrors of slavery and slaughter of native Americans.