My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.’
Martin Scorcese, using Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay based on a novel by Dennis Lehane Yakes, con ducts us on a horrific journey into the human psyche in what could be called “Shudder Island.” It is 1954, a time of great paranoia because of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear holocaust without and the threat of devious traitors within. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) just as they are taking the ferry to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. They have been sent to investigate the strange disappearance of the institution’s most infamous prisoner, a young mother who drowned her three children. Her room had been watched every hour of the day and was locked from the outside, so an external investigation has been called.
Once a Civil War fort atop an island near Boston harbor, the old building and the island itself are grim specters surrounded by cold, angry waters. The waters are being stirred up by an approaching hurricane, so the boat’s captain tells the pair to disembark quickly so that he can get back to shore. This anxiety about time runs throughout the story. Teddy, we soon learn, is a troubled man, plagued by a series of migraine headaches—troubled by the memory of his wife who perished in a fire, and who keeps reappearing to him. Disturbed by the haunting images of dead Jews, lying in frozen heaps amidst the snow when he was a part of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Dachau. In one horrific flashback scene he and his fellow soldiers become so enraged that they blast away at the unarmed German guards, who soon form their own heaps of dead bodies.
The chief doctors at the hospital seem sinister and foreboding. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) claims to want to cooperate, but his manner says otherwise. Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) immediately arouses Teddy’s suspicion because he recognizes even the region of Germany where the Na—er, the German, acquired his accent. What the Marshall later learns from the escaped patient hints of dark, forbidden experiments on the inmates, so we wonder if the film is following in the track of The Manchurian Candidate or any one of a hundred government conspiracy films—Edge of Darkness, anyone?
What Teddy eventually discovers is far more shocking. Only then do we understand why the matter of time running out is so important. The hurricane that had been approaching, and which does sweep over the island, uprooting trees and creating chaos, is but an outward, pale symbol of the inner chaos—and horror—impacting all concerned. During the height of the hurricane Teddy and Chuck are able to slip away and explore the buildings where the inmates are kept confined, and even the rocky cliffs that drop away to the sea. It is in one of the caves that Teddy at last confronts the escaped woman. Leaving her, he searches for his missing partner. By now the mysterious lighthouse they had seen earlier is cut off from the island by the high tide, but Teddy manages to swim out to it. As he climbs the circular stairs, his exploration of the different levels builds to a great climax of suspense and eventual revelation.
Shutter Island is a film you will long remember, one that lends itself to a discussion of the darker corners of the human psyche. Martin Scorcese is noted for his characters burdened by dark impulses, desires and guilt—witness Taxi Driver, Good Fellas, The Aviator, and one of my favorites, Bringing Out the Dead. His latest film shows that he has not lost his touch, the film leaving us with a sense of lostness and yearning. One wonders if the outcome might have been different had the characters but a fraction of the faith of the psalmist, who also faced turmoil of the soul and the horror that so often overwhelms the spirit.
Contains spoiler. Especially in the latter question, so if you want to be surprised by the film, do not read further than Question 4!
1. What does Teddy seem like when you first see him? Dressed in his hat, overcoat, and smoking a cigarette, does he seem like the picture of the tough private eye or G-man of the times?
2. What all was transpiring in his world in 1954? Although one would never know it by the popular TV series Happy Days, how would Fearful Days be a better description of the Fifties? (Note that even the cheerful Julia and Julie depicted the painful incident in which Julia Child’s liberal diplomat husband was under suspicion of being a Communist.)
3. What are the horrors that Teddy has experienced? How have they apparently impacted his life?
4. What do you think of the two doctors when you first meet them? In what ways are we led to believe that they harbor sinister secrets?
5. How is the hurricane a good symbol for the inner state of Teddy? What does his memory of the impulsive execution of the German guards reveal about the nature of “the Good Guys” ? Do you think that we are all capable of such an evil act? Why or why not?
6. What connection do the three drowned children have with Teddy? The film seems to be told from an omniscient viewpoint, like most films, but whose viewpoint actually is the story told from—at least until perhaps the last scene? How is this film like A Beautiful Mind in this respect?
7. What do you make of the conversation between Teddy and the warden concerning God in which the latter says that God gave us violence and Teddy says that he thought God gave us moral order? How can the headlines of the past century lead one to such a conclusion? What might you say in response?
8. What do you think of Teddy’s last words about the choice between living as a monster or dying as a good man? What choice does he apparently make? If you were in his shoes, which might you make? Would this be an act of despair, or courage, maybe even faith?