Monday, June 20, 2011

Shutter Island: On Being Sane In Insane Places

Almost forty years ago, a psychologist undertook a field experiment with some of his grad students. He had them check themselves into mental hospitals, based solely on the claim that they "heard voices." Once admitted, no amount of apparent improvement would get the hospital staff to see them as anything but mentally ill. Legitimate complaints about treatment were labeled "acting out", claims of being or doing better were chalked up to "denial." Once you're mentally ill, it seems to suggest, you have relinquished your right to be taken seriously.

Conversely, to the extent that lay definitions of mental illness include the distorted perception of reality (often, though not exclusively, found in schizophrenia), there's this sense that the mentally ill don't perceive the world as it actually is, that what they see and hear and think is not really there. So what is happening might not actually be happening, but then again it might. But even if it is, nobody will ever believe you. It's bad enough being all alone out in the woods/closed-up resort hotel/abandoned hospital and getting menaced by a thing, but what if the thing is right in front of you the whole time and nobody believes it? Even the smallest things become menacing. You don't know who's in on it and who isn't. You're not even sure there's actually an "it" for anyone to be in on. There's no safety at all, not even in groups.

Shutter Island capitalizes on this absence of safety to fine effect throughout, building a menacing construct out of multiple genres in the process.

It's 1954, and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are called to apprehend an escapee from a mental hospital situated on the titular island. It's a hospital for the criminally insane, where the worst and most dangerous cases are sent for treatment. Everything seems off from the beginning - the patient ostensibly escaped from a locked room and traversed hostile, rocky terrain barefoot. The doctors and nurses are all less than forthcoming about the patient's history, and the primary care psychiatrist just happened to leave for a week or so on vacation the day Daniels and Aule arrive. The agents have to surrender their firearms to the hospital's resident police force, and the chief psychiatrists - Drs. Cawley and Naehring - refuse to turn over records that might help them. The patients they interview are evasive at best. So something is definitely Not Right Here. In what to me was a pleasantly surprising bit of atypical behavior, Daniels basically says "fuck it, this is getting us nowhere, let's go home." Unfortunately, the gloomy weather they've endured since they got there has turned into a full-bore hurricane battering the island. The ferry won't be coming, there's no other way off, and the whole hospital has gone into lockdown.

Daniels and Aule are stuck, so there's nothing left to do but continue to investigate, pursue leads. But Teddy's starting to get migraines, and he wakes up every night in a cold sweat, nightmares of his time in the Army and the traumatic death of his wife and children torturing him. Digging into the hospital's history finds that they're partially government funded, with money coming from HUAC. Dr. Cawley spent some time in the O.S.S., and Dr. Naehring? Well, he came over from Germany, but he's vague about the specific time frame. Stories of unorthodox experiments and terrible surgeries performed in the island's lighthouse - oh sure, it's just supposed to be a sewage treatment plant…but then why the electrified barbed wire fence? All the while, the storm rages outside.

Shutter Island takes what it needs from film noir, gothic horror, and more contemporary stylistic exercises like The Cell to create an environment that feels unnatural and oppressive, even in broadest daylight. The film takes place during a time in American history when paranoia and suspicion are at a peak, and all kinds of terrible things were actually done in the name of stopping the Communist menace. Lives were indeed ruined and people permanently broken during this time. Moreover, it predates many of the advances in research and treatment ethics that are part and parcel of psychology today. World War II is over, but the ghosts of what happened to men who fought continue to haunt them in their civilian life. The idea of trust or even truth is a shaky one in this climate, and it suffuses the film. Even the most innocuous interactions feel like they have hidden meanings. Daniels and Aule really are in hostile territory here. 

On top of that, the whole island is a monument to the gothic style - jagged peaks, an old lighthouse, rocky cliffs, crumbling graveyards, and historically ornate buildings dating back to the Civil War. At the top of the bluffs, overlooking everything is Ward C - the worst and most dangerous of the worst and most dangerous, segregated from the rest of the population in a heavily secured Civil War fortress. People go into Ward C and never come back out again. As unsettling as the exterior is, the interiors are no less disturbing. Daniels is wrestling with a lot of trauma, and his nightmares are juxtapositions of his past and present in jarring ways, presented with an attention to color, lighting and detail that makes his interior world - no matter how hellish - a lusher and more, well, real experience than his relatively drab 1950s exterior life. Stylistic reappropriation can suck pretty badly when handled poorly, but here, it all contributes to the sense that pretty much anything we can usually count on to ground our perceptions is fair game. It's jarring, but in a way that makes sense given the story.

This movie is one in which we feel like we've been immersed in someone's waking nightmare. Nowhere is safe, nobody is trustworthy,  nothing is certain. Nurses and patients alike whisper behind our back. People vanish from locked rooms and return just as easily, with little comment from anyone. Sidelong glances, innocuous comments fill us with dread. Bodies at Dachau accuse us in our sleep. Lovers crumble to ash in our hands. Outside, the air thickens with unease. A storm is coming.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I enjoyed the film and I also enjoyed the book but I had one major problem with both. The scene where the old woman shows up in the cave never seemed to fit in the logic of the story. While Ted was crazy, he didn't see things he just interpreted them incorrectly; so to throw a random hallucination in the mix didn't seem to fit with everything else.