The last film I saw in a theater was Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, in 2002. Since the advent of digital video formats and the outrageous prices attendant to going to a theater, if a film was any good (usually involving a director and actors who are true stars, not Ken and Barbie cutouts), I’d prefer to wait for the DVD. Bur sometimes I miss the boat; the Scorsese/DiCaprio pairing in Shutter Island— was a film I should have seen on the big screen, and ignored until I saw the DVD in a retail store for $5, and I’ve wasted more money on junk food on any given day. I recalled that the film received generally positive reviews, with the notable exception of the Washington Post and the New York Times. One has to point out, however, that these reviewers completely missed the boat, but for a different reason: Plot points inside a “delusional” man’s head aren’t supposed to make “sense.”
Shutter Island turned out to be an intense psychological thriller, following DiCaprio’s federal marshal (Edward Daniels) and his first time partner to an island prison/hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the inmates, a woman who drowned her three children. At first the marshals receive little cooperation from the staff, and Daniels receives a cryptic message from one inmate, who advises him to “run.” But for one reason or another, the marshals cannot leave the island, and eventually Daniels decides to remain until he discovers what he assumes is the terrible truth about what is going on in a certain mysterious ward, and even more dastardly crimes being committed in the lighthouse upon the inmates.
But since this is a psychological thriller, nothing is as simple as that. Daniels cannot escape the island not because of some evil being perpetrated there that cannot be revealed to the outside world, but because he himself is an inmate. Although many reviewers claimed that this was the kind of film whose intricacies, red herrings and “shocking” plot twists were only evident in retrospect (much like films such as The Sixth Sense and The Ninth Configuration) and demanded repeat viewings, I “got” everything on the first viewings—save for one nagging problem: Why Daniels was incarcerated there in the first place.
Daniels has several flashbacks that are meant to justify what several characters claim to imply “violent” proclivities—and what Daniels calls being a “monster.” The first, coming early in the film, show Daniels as a World War II soldier entering the Dachau concentration camp, appalled by the thousands of corpses he sees. Soon afterwards, he and his fellow soldiers in a state of vengeance line-up the camp guards against a fence and shoot down every one of them. Midway through the film, Daniels is obsessed by a ghostly image of a young girl who asks him why he didn’t “save” her. Another inmate tells him that he won’t “escape” unless he accepts the “truth” and goes on with his life.
The final flashback sees Daniels returning home to find his wife soaking wet, and his three children floating dead in the lake beyond, drowned by their mother. After carrying the children back to the yard, Daniels—in an obviously understandable state of shock, is approached by his wife (apparently insane) who embraces him. We then hear the report of a gunshot, and she falls dead. Now, in the “real” world, Daniel’s actions may have been interpreted as a “temporary” state of insanity (and if gender roles were reversed, to be “justified”), and he might even have been acquitted of voluntary manslaughter if he had a persuasive attorney.
But that is not what happened. We are supposed to believe that this action made Daniels “insane,” that he is a naturally violent “monster” who has injured (and even maimed) some fellow inmates (although he is the only one we see attacked by others in the film), that he has invented a fictional persona for both himself and his dead wife (the “missing” inmate) to psychologically “escape” from his “crime”—and worst of all, he is made by the script writer to shoulder the blame for the death of his children (“I killed my children,” he “confesses”).
In a state of “acceptance” of the truth, Daniels admits that he “murdered” his wife, whose own actions were the product of a creeping insanity brought on by some mysterious “syndrome” that only women seem to suffer, and that her husband should have seen the “warning signs” and “saved” his children by sending her away for psychiatric help before she acted on her murderous “intentions.” Because he didn’t suspect this, he was a “violent monster.” The irony, of course, is that if the prison’s psychiatrists actually wanted to “cure” him, it was their obligation to convince him that in fact he was not—that his actions were an “understandable” reaction to the horror he was confronted with.
If you’ve heard this all before, you are quite correct. Texas “mother” Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub, the horror of the act itself can be left to the imagination. This isn’t shooting, drugging or gassing in carbon monoxide, either a quick or painless death; this is waterboarding to death. Yates had to actually hold down her struggling children (all boys) in the water. Yates claimed that she was sending them to “heaven,” and had “intended” in killing herself, but she of course didn’t. Perhaps she knew that there is something strange among Texas jurors, who seem to have such a high regard for “mothers”—white ones, anyways—that the only possible reason for committing such a heinously disturbing act is insanity, which of course is what the jury found her “guilty” of in her retrial.
But the sanctity of motherhood inspires other myths, like the father “ignoring” the “warning” signs of an impending slaughter, just as the Daniels’ character was “supposed” to. The deceit of this is part of the current myth that men are beasts and women are passive “victims”—even by their own children. Yates’ husband was vilified for “ignoring” the psychological “signs” that she was devolving into a state of murder. Yet we are supposed to assume that he is some kind of “mind reader,” that he is to imagine that his wife’s occasionally strange behavior is supposed to tip him off that she has something so horrific in mind that he must “assume” the worst? There are those who might even accuse him of being “crazy” and “misogynistic” for even suggesting it.
This politically-correct myth-making that asserts that women are “victims” even in the commission of such a horrific crime of murdering a child in a most agonizing fashion is used in Shutter Island as a difficult to tolerate justification for everything that transpired. By ending that way, what was until the last 10 minutes was a mesmerizing thriller turned out to be an overlong justification for male guilt for the crimes of women, particularly by mothers against their own children.
I don’t blame Scorsese for this mendacity, but the writer of the story. I’m sure the victim myth premise was seen as “contemporary,” but for me the falsity of it destroyed the rationalization of the film itself; I didn’t believe for one minute that Daniels was the true “bad guy” in the film, but a scapegoat for the crimes of others more deserving of scrutiny.