“Is it better to live a monster, or to die a good man?” With these words, Leonardo Dicaprio ends “Shutter Island” on a profoundly ambiguous note. Like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from our childhood, several scripts have been written, but we as the audience are given the choice between them. Since revealing details of the film seems to me the only way to effectively explore that ambiguity, I am issuing a severe spoiler alert for the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and parts of Missouri. You have been warned.
Leonardo Dicaprio is introduced as Teddy, a federal Marshal traveling by ferry to Shutter Island, an asylum for the most dangerous of the criminally insane. He is investigating a recent escape by one of the female inmates. We soon learn that Teddy had requested this assignment, and that he believes the medical staff at Shutter Island are conducting secret experiments on the inmates with psychotropic drugs and brain surgery. He later meets the escaped inmate, who reveals that she had been a nurse before she learned of the experiments, and had been forcibly committed to discredit her accusations against the institution.
Before finishing the plot summary, I want to review the film up to this point. My first impression of this film was not a favorable one, mostly due to the soundtrack. The film itself starts off with Teddy meeting his new partner Chuck on the ferry ride over to Shutter Island, and their entry through progressive rings of the institution’s security. These are beautiful, almost serene images, and a credit to the direction of Scorsese. The music, on the other hand, starts off as though it were already the climax: it is loud, dissonant, and unrelentingly cacophonous. It's hard to imagine anything more brazenly manipulative than those first five minutes of film -- yes, that includes the finale episodes for any season of "American Idol." Fortunately, things improved: the music was toned down and interspersed with more classical oeuvre, while the cinematography was amped up and given actual dramatic heft. The movie itself begins to live up to those dissonant notes from its opening, though, when Teddy begins to experience migraines and wrestles with his memories from the liberation of Dachau. The interspersed images contribute greatly to the sense of tension later in the film.
After bidding farewell to the escapee, Teddy realizes that his partner Chuck is missing, and suspects that he has been abducted for psychiatric experimentation. While investigating an abandoned lighthouse, he meets the head of the medical staff, who tells him that Teddy has been a patient at Shutter Island for the last two years. His partner Chuck was in fact his primary-care psychiatrist. Teddy had concocted a fantasy of being a U.S. Marshal to avoid dealing with his traumatic past: his wife had killed their three children, and had died at his hands in the aftermath. Teddy is in fact scheduled for a lobotomy, unless he comes to terms with his own past. For a few brief minutes in the film, he does remember, but the next day he appears to have re-emerged into this fantasy. But before he can be carted off to the lobotomy, he looks at his "partner" and asks him: “Is it better to live a monster or to die a good man?” He then picks himself up and walks away with the medical staff.
There are three possible interpretations of this ending, as I see it. The first ending is the most evident one: Teddy is an inmate, who relapsed into his fantasy. The second ending, which is more plausible and more intriguing, is that Teddy did not relapse. He realized he had killed his wife, and had doomed his children by ignoring her mental condition, and could not live with the knowledge of what he had done. He had already been told that if he relapsed he would be lobotomized, so an easy escape offered itself naturally to his mind. Deceive the staff, erase the memory.
The third ending is less plausible, but much more intriguing, simply because it disregards the final twist as a ploy by the Shutter Island staff. We know that they had been feeding him drugs throughout the film, and that they’d fed him a story about an inmate who killed her three children, so how hard is it to imagine that the “memories” of his dead wife and children were themselves hallucinations spurred by the power of suggestion? In this reading, Chuck was a plant by the Shutter Island staff to play on Teddy’s sympathies and create a more dissonant denouement, a tension that forced Teddy to reconcile through those imagined memories. This might also explain why one of the female inmates wrote “RUN” in Teddy’s notebook when Chuck had left to get some water – she knew the island was a trap set for him, and that Chuck was in on it.
It can readily be seen why this movie would be compared to “Inception,” Leonardo Dicaprio’s other thriller of the year. Both movies play with the ideas of mind and memory, and toy with their audience’s understanding of reality. The final shot of the spinning top –the momentary wobble, or is it just a visual trick? – truly underscores the ambiguity at play in both films. Was it all a dream, or all a hallucination? Or, if there was some reality presented in this film, where do we look for it? However we interpret the film, it performed admirably in provoking thought and question about the psychiatric profession. Most films are content to foist an imaginative vision upon its audience, but these films leave off those final pieces to the puzzle, and expect its audience to participate in the creative act. While I doubt I would watch this movie over again, it is a pleasure to puzzle over the mysteries it presented.