Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.
Review: Let’s talk about plot. Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated. A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim. For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise. Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending? It depends primarily on the emotional content. Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.
I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. The surprise factor, for some, was lost. But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense? ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold. Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing. ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending. It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’. It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror. In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore. Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves. Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.
‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’. Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions. They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools. Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda. ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite. Note that both stories grow on the one tree. They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.
On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?” The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal. It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade. When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all. There is no other choice. In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy. Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind. ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully. The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.
Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here. It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills. I think it’s obvious… I loved it.