To Live as a Monster or Die as a Good Man

shutter island
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is an extraordinary film. It is Hitchcock, classic noir, Dr. Moreau all at once. But does it cheat?

It’s a question that comes up many times in movies that provide an elaborate twist at the end that makes you rethink the entire movie. Like, say, The Sixth Sense (does not cheat), The Usual Suspects (one big cheat), The Sting (cheats).

What I mean by cheating is this– were there scenes in the movie which were solely meant to mislead the viewer? Or did they serve a purpose in the plot?

Of course, all movies cheat through editing; through what they do not show. But what they do show shouldn’t be a lie.

Well, I’ve only watched it once, but I believe Shutter Island does not cheat.

Tread lightly from this point forward, for here there be dragons! Spoilers about the film may be revealed. Turn back, all ye who wish to remain unsullied.

Here’s why it doesn’t cheat: every scene that may seem like a ruse, is also a ruse for Teddy. Every misleading element is there to mislead Teddy. We, the audience, get taken for a ride because we see the world through Teddy’s eyes. From that perspective, the trick of this film is a lot like The Sixth Sense.

Ebert gets to the heart of it:

There is a human tendency to note carefully what goes before, and draw logical conclusions. But — what if you can’t nail down exactly what went before? What if there were things about Cawley and his peculiar staff that were hidden? What if the movie lacks a reliable narrator? What if its point of view isn’t omniscient but fragmented? Where can it all lead? What does it mean? We ask, and Teddy asks, too.

Everything seems to fit. Everything except for the conversation with George Noyce. I have only watched the movie once, but how would that conversation sound if I heard it again? Is he toying with Teddy, or with us? Does he refer to Laeddis in the third person? If so, why? Is he really being cryptic, or would it all be clear if only we knew the context?

A few other questions about what was real and what was a hallucination: were the rats and the Patricia Clarkson version of Rachel in the cave real or a hallucination? Was the dead Chuck on the rocks real or a hallucination?

Also, there are a lot of discussions online about how maybe the twist at the end may not actually be a twist at all. That Teddy really is Teddy, and they’ve convinced him that he’s insane. I don’t think that’s true. I think there is only one explanation for what happened, and that is clear.

This movie practically demands a second viewing.


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