The Curmudgeon


Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Ending of Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is a fine piece of psychological horror whose frequent Grand Guignol flourishes are balanced by subtler touches. Indeed, at least one of the flourishes is itself a subtle touch, namely the build-up of sinister music as US Marshal Daniels enters the eponymous mental hospital: Daniels has every reason to be apprehensive, but not the reasons he or most first-time viewers probably think he has. The ending is similarly multi-layered, although I am far from sure whether the director who, in Paul Schrader's phrase, imposed salvation on Jake LaMotta by fiat, would approve of my interpretation.

Just before giving himself up for lobotomisation, Andrew Laeddis wonders which would be worse: living as a monster or dying as a good man. The implication (which, since it remains an implication and not a moral explained in voice-over, appears to have baffled a sizeable section of the film's audience) is that Laeddis has been cured of his delusions but is unable to live with the truth from which those delusions were protecting him, and that he is in effect committing suicide by psychiatrist.

Laeddis' decision is particularly poignant given his straight-cop reaction to Dr Cawley's opinions on the moral fusion of law and order with clinical care: "These are all violent offenders ... personally, Doctor, I'd have to say screw their sense of calm." The elaborate role-play therapy in which Cawley has enmeshed Laeddis has wider implications than Laeddis' own treatment: it is a test case in a long-standing argument between those who believe the criminally insane should be treated with a measure of compassion and those who prefer a more final solution. Cawley has told Laeddis about this controversy; so, by faking his own relapse, Laeddis knowingly hands the lobotomisers a victory by showing that Cawley's more humane modes of treatment have no lasting effect. Because of Laeddis' inability to live without his own "sense of calm", unknown numbers of other people will be turned into zombies.

The rule of four: living as a monster and dying as a good man are not the only choices open to Laeddis. Rather than try to live as a better man than he was before, he chooses to die and, in dying, to provide aid and comfort for the advocates of cruel and unusual punishment. Redemption can be more complicated than it looks.


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