Monday, March 8, 2010

We're All Deluded -- Reflections on "Shutter Island"

Edgar Allen Poe’s classic “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of my favorite short stories because of its use of the unreliable narrator. From the first line of the story a madman assures us he is not insane. He informs us that the way he tells the tale will convince us as to his sanity, yet as the story progresses and he unveils his horrible actions we realize how fucked up the guy really is. That’s where the horror of the story comes from; its not that the narrator cuts up his victim in little pieces and buries him beneath the floorboards of his house – it’s that he believes this behavior is perfectly reasonable.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island makes us ask the same question: can we trust Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose point-of-view dominates the film? The suspense, and horror, in this movie stems from this question. Shutter Island begins with a federal marshal arriving at an island where the criminally insane are incarcerated and slowly descends into madness until it arrives at a conclusion as deliciously mad as it is unexpected.

Before I reflect on the film’s meaning, let me summarize the basic plot: Teddy Daniels is a federal marshal sent to Shutter Island to track down an escaped “patient.” He runs into all sorts of roadblocks from the staff, and especially the sinister Drs. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max von Sydow). With the help of his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy attempts to unlock the mysteries of the Island and discover the intentions of its administration.

I’m not going to give away anything in this movie because that would be awful – you need to experience it without knowing anything about its numerous twists and turns. But, like most movies, this one got me thinking.

How much can our perspectives on events be trusted? All of our experiences are filtered through our own ideas and beliefs, so when we recount what has happened to us we are only sharing one side of a situation; yet we expect others to see things the way we do. Often we’re offended if they don’t.

Isn’t this delusion?

In his song, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” about the notorious serial killer, Sufjan Stevens wrote: “Even on my best behavior/ I am just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards/ For the secrets I have hid.” We recoil at Stevens’ intimation – no doubt because it is appalling to consider we have something in common with a serial killer, especially one known for dressing as a clown to rape and murder young boys. But there’s truth to be found here: inside we are all killers, liars, and thieves. We are backbiters and scoundrels; whores and hounds. We have deluded ourselves into believing we are good and right.

This is not to say that we do not have equally good characteristics in our nature. For all of the ugliness that lies within us, I firmly believe that Anne Frank was right when she said, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

Yet, we are often deluded into believing that we are either all bad or all good. My mother, for example, firmly believed that she was awful, and she sunk into a deep dark depression that led her to two nervous breakdowns and a suicide attempt. For me, time in the church had me convinced that I was such a wretched sinner that there was no way I could be good (and despite the talk about Christ’s offer for redemption, I always felt the bad outweighed the good). Of course, these are falsehoods, but once a person is convinced of their nature, it becomes difficult to see things objectively (if such a thing is even possible).

“Perception is 9/10 of a situation,” a friend once told me. And I hold this to be true. We are slaves to our perceptions, as tainted as they are by subjective understandings of the world around us.

So, to come full-circle, this is where Shutter Island is a success. It is an exploration of delusion and its hold on us. We all know Scorsese is a remarkable filmmaker, and this film is not his best (my personal favorite is Taxi Driver, which shares a lot of commonality with this movie), but here he manages to go neck-deep into the psyche of a unique character as he attempts to solve an unsolvable crime.

This, of course, is my perception of the movie. And, who knows: it’s probably wrong.

But I don’t think so.

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