Father Steve Grunow reviews Martin Scorcese's psychological thriller and box office hit, Shutter Island:
Martin Scorcese’s new film Shutter Island is, in its narrative and its visual impact, a homage to and recapitulation of American film noir. The film is dark. In fact, it is very dark-- so dark that it is as difficult to navigate as the troubled waters that surround the asylum where the story takes place.
It is 1954, and when we first meet U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), he is figuratively and literally under the weather. He suffers from what appears to be seasickness, a malady that he articulates as an intense, aversion to water-- and water is everywhere. Grey skies above him threaten to burst with rain and grey waters undulate under the boat taking him to Shutter Island. “Storms are coming”, warns the captain of the small vessel. Those words prepare Daniels and the viewers for the terrors yet to be revealed. Shutter Island is the isolated home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane.
Daniels meets another marshal on the boat, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), and we can surmise from the conversation that more is going on at Ashecliffe Hospital than the care and treatment of its patients. One patient has gone missing… or so it seems.
We might expect that in such a film nothing is ever what it appears to be, and this suspicion plays itself out as the story progresses. Shutter Island is not just a hospital, it is an epicenter of human dysfunction. The madness that consumes Daniels and all that he surveys is present not only in the shattered personalities of Ashecliffe’s patients, but is suggested in everything from psychiatry, to politics, to history. We learn that Daniels was present for the liberation of Dachau, and we are led to believe that the horrors perpetrated in that concentration camp are repeating themselves on Shutter Island. But, nothing is quite what it seems. The apparent disconnect between what might be and what really is identifies the species of madness that Daniels encounters on Shutter Island.
Uncertainty is the primary motivation for the characters in the film and the viewers of the film. We just can’t be sure of anything. Is this lack of certitude what is driving Daniels crazy? Or, might it just be that Daniels has more in common with the inhabitants of Shutter Island than he can either admit or understand?
It turns out to be all of the above.
It also turns out that what Scorcese may be up to is much greater than just a homage to film noir. There is much more here than just a reflection on the noir themes of crime, conspiracy and punishment. The film seems to be about madness and civilization, particularly the madness that manifests itself in violence. The patients of Ashecliffe are all a case in point, demonstrating that humanity is capable of inflicting terrible violence, even without even knowing what we are doing. Can violence be cured, curtailed or controlled? Can Daniels, himself both a victim and perpetrator of violence, be healed? The staff at Ashecliffe is trying, through compassion, reason and scientific methodology, to curtail and control the malady. But, they cannot heal their patients; they can only hope to confine them. The story of “Shutter Island” will tell us that violence is within our nature, and rooting it out through pharmacology or surgery might make not only the patients, but all of us, less than human.
A revelatory moment occurs when one character makes the audacious claim to Daniels that God loves all this violence, and given what Daniels has experienced, how can he disagree?
I respect Scorcese for allowing theology into this film. What lurks behind the predicament of humanity’s and nature’s violence is an intense, theological question: Is this the way God intends for things to be? Scorcese does not let believers or non-believers cop out. The believer has some explaining to do in terms of the manner in which God has ordered the universe. What kind of God has made such apparent violence possible in his creation? The unbeliever might attempt to retreat from this question, but if it is not the question of God, it is the question of nature that we must contend with. And as Nietzsche reminded us, the truth of nature’s violence might only be a predicament to us because our sense of morality has been conditioned to think this is so by the conventions of culture. In this respect, violence is neither good nor evil- it just is. “Who then will save us from this body of death?” If Scorcese has an answer to this question, he doesn’t place it within this story.
There is no redemption in this film. Shutter Island might not be post-theological, but it is definitely post-Christian. No Savior will come into this story from the outside in order to reveal what God is really up to. Such a possibility is never even entertained. Daniels discovers that even a contrite reckoning with what one has done will not, by necessity, lead to hope or provide a reason to endure. In all its respects, the film reminded me of Pascal’s insight from the Pensees that the human condition can be likened to the experience of prisoners chained to a rock, from which the only escape is death. However, Pascal believed that Christ has the power to break those chains. On Shutter Island, the chains that hold us are tightened because they are the necessary restraints that keep us from turning on one another.
The line that seems to explain what Shutter Island is all about comes at the conclusion of the film. Daniels queries “Is it worse to live as a monster or die as a good man?” By “good man,” Daniels does not mean a reformation of character or salvation of the soul, the likes of which the Christian believes the Lord Jesus makes possible. The “good man” that Daniels aspires to be will do everything possible to forget who he is, opting for ignorance rather than truth. It is better for Daniels to live without his memories rather than face the reality of his own history.
With this in mind, I couldn’t help but think that, given the imagery and narrative of the film, Scorcese is presenting what our civilization has become after the 20th century, by far the most violent epoch in human history. Shutter Island recapitulates the terror of the century just past. Given the violence humanity has perpetrated against God and against itself, what hope is there for us, bereft of a Savior, but to forget? Without a Savior, the memories of what humanity has done and failed to do are just too difficult to endure.
-Father Stephen Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.