Thoughts On: Shutter Island - The Theatre Of The Unconscious


Shutter Island - The Theatre Of The Unconscious

Quick Thoughts: Shutter Island (2010)

A U.S Marshal searches from a patient escaped from a high security mental institution.

Shutter Island is a true masterpiece. Its use of colour and music, the subtle, subtle cinematic language, the emphasis of elements such as fire and water, the circular, multi-layered plot, the subtext, all come together to forge an immense work of undeniable poise, impact and precision. What makes Shutter Island so intricately complex is its ability to manage the world outside of its story as well as the worlds inside the story. In watching this film you then feel trapped, unable to gaze at the narrative planes above and below yourself, unable to decipher the realities of Teddy's war-fantasies and or see his inner-demons properly unmasked. That is, until the end, and the brilliant, classical Hollywood-esque ending: What is worse, to live a monster or die a hero?

The aphoristic thunder that this sends shuddering from the screen always leaves my thoughts of all that could be written about the film dashed and shattered. It says it all, and it says it better than most essays ever could. However, whilst the film certainly says more than I can, I think there's value in highlighting those two planes of narrative that, though they are revealed in the end, remain somewhat illusive.

The major conflict of Shutter Island is undoubtedly the concept of evil, of being a monster. However, this only presses upon the psyche of Teddy so heavily because he cannot conceive of a world in which he is an anomaly. This is in fact shown to be true with most of the patients at Shutter Island, many of which reference H-bombs and a new post-WWII society as unthinkable. This world that patients have been extracted from, inside looking out, would, somewhat ironically, seem to be one too complex and too explosive for them. There is then a strong sense of institutionalisation embedded into the film via its post-war context. However, for Teddy, the world is not too crazy for him to exist in, rather, it is not chaotic enough. In such, for him to be sane, the government must be overseeing a murderous conspiracy - the likes of which would only be conceived of by comic book evil Nazi scientists.

The fact that Teddy cannot bear to have witnessed his wife murder their three children and, in response to this, can't bear to live in a world where his government isn't at least attempting to stage a eugenic revolution, speaks volumes to the heart of the film: disavowal. How can it be that Teddy was not just apart of a world war, but maybe lead his wife to kill her children? How can one reconcile with themselves in such a situation? How could one want to? And such draws us back to the final question: What is worse, to live a monster or die a hero? Whilst, it is difficult to answer this, what makes this interrogative so important is 'worse'. It is 'worse' that implies that it doesn't necessarily matter if one lives as a monster or dies as a hero. The reality is, one is neither hero or monster. Not strictly. Not definitely. Not nearly.

Upon conclusion, Shutter Island reveals itself to be a very literal game and a theatre of the unconscious where Teddy tries, and fails, to test his faith and hope in unknowing. He tries to become a hero and avoid the monster with himself. However, he is only ever confronted with the incomprehensible truth of his reality. And what can be done in the face of this?

To find out why I wrote about this film for the Kaleidoscope series, check out my new screenplay.

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