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No Man is an Island: The Ending of Shutter Island…

I’ve probably said too much in my review of Shutter Island already, but the ending of the film merits discussion on its own, away from the chance of spoiling the viewing experience for anyone – much like I did with the ending of Inglourious Basterds.

Maybe Elias Koteas can shed some light on the ending...

Note: As the title and text directly above imply (or explicitly state), this post is about the ending of a movie currently in major release that you may or may not have seen. Reading ahead may ruin your enjoyment of the film if you haven’t already seen it. You have been warned.

Cool. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s talk about that ending. The ending which basically reveals that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy or Andy, is really the sixty-seventh patient on the island and the whole one of the patients has “evaporated straight through the walls” plot was just an elaborate role-playing fantasy by the staff to help Andy work through his issues and come to terms with the event which made him snap: the drowning of his three children by a wife who confessed to him she was not well, but he ignored.

Let’s ignore discussing this twist in real world terms. It’s absolutely ridiculous. You may as well reveal that the chief administrator was an alien zombie ninja conducting live autopsies on patients. Andy’s alternate reality where the asylum is running MK-ULTRA style experiments on its residents seems far more plausible (particularly in a historical context) than what is really occurring. Who in their right mind would give the greenlight to such an experiment? Particularly since it meant putting a patient’s life in danger (repeatedly). Andy had already brutalised Noyce before the movie began, so who knows what he would be capable of if you played along. Doctor Cawley handwaves this by saying the institution was at risk of being shut down, so a radical approach as needed. If this is indicative of how they operate, maybe shutting them down wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Why on earth did the patients play along? Particularly if they recognise Andy? (In fairness, the staff did seem reluctant to humour this experiment, in hindsight.) What were the odds of Andy seriously injuring the doctors, particularly those he suspected of being Nazis? How much of what Andy say actually happened, like the doctors suggesting tying down the violent inmates and maybe drowning them (and would that not be a discussion best kept… y’know, private)?

There’s no way to make that crucial twist seem believable. Ironically, the possibility that this is all one huge double bluff actually seems far more plausible when Cawley explains all this to the confused Andy. You start thinking it’s actually possible he’s really a “dooly appointed federal mahshall” and they are screwing with his head with some weird mind control stuff. It actually seems possible. And maybe, deep down, it is. Maybe, if his consciousness can be so easily distorted, so can our perception. As his memories can be wiped and stylishly rewritten, so can the entirity of the film we’ve been watching.

Nah, that’s too meta-fictional.

In short: the ending makes no sense.

There’s very little foreshadowing. The fictional character that Federal Marshall Teddy is pursuing is played by recognisable actor Elias Koteas. You know, the dude from Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He appears in the trailer and all the publicity materials. He’s a name and faces that film buffs know. His appearance is gradually teased throughout the movie. And yet he doesn’t exist. We see him for about ten seconds in a dream. It’s a red herring that is absolutely brilliant in its audacity. The only way Scorcese could have pulled it off any better would be to give the role to Robert DeNiro and give the actor joint title billing.

Even the atmospheric elements – particularly heavy use of smoke (as a substitute for mist) – suggested the trauma of the death of his wife through tenement fire, not just the fog of war and his clouded perspective. There was no reason for the audience to tie the story of Rachel Solando and her drowned children to that of Federal Marshall Teddy, something which became a key part of the movie’s climax.

But here’s the really crazy part: Scorcese pulls it off. Let’s not forget the kind of movie he is calling to mind here: the old RKO horror films. The type of low-budget trashy masterpieces which I used to sit up with my grandfather and watch. These are movies which push atmosphere and style far ahead of narrative and storytelling. It isn’t about linear and sensible plot, or a twist which grounds the movie, so much as a sense of dread or darkness which overwhelms everything which happens on screen.

I accused Scorcese of concealling the twist above, as if that’s some sort of crime. “That’s just not cricket,” as some one with a faux British accent would declare. This is movie-making, not cricket. Why should he be required to hint at a twist ending in order to execute it? I’d suggest that he does hint at the twist. It should be obvious to anyone viewing the film that there will be a twist based on the premise alone: a woman vanishes through the walls of her cell on a gothic mental institution in the midst of a storm in the nineteen-fifties. If that doesn’t sound like a Twilight Zone episode, I don’t know what is. From the moment I saw the trailer, I knew there was a twist. There had to be. This wasn’t a cop movie – this was a weird psycho-thriller. The truth is that I never guessed what the twist was.

And I’m glad of that. Maybe we’re giving the twist far too much discussion. Maybe it is what it is. Maybe it’s simply a twist stuck on the end for shock value. But it fits. The movie is populated with denial. In fact, I suggest that it is Scorcese’s holocaust movie because it is about denial (a quintessential approach to the subject from a Roman Catholic perspective). Andy’s denial over his wife’s mental illness and then his denial over his own denial. Is it any wonder that would drive a man insane.

I’ve only seen the film once. I likely won’t see it a second time in the cinema, but I will be queuing up for it on DVD. They say that a great twist changes the way you look at the movie. I suspect this will.

6 Responses

  1. When you watch it again be sure to carefully watch every other character’s reactions BUT DiCaprio.

    • Cool. I’ll keep that in mind. I was enough faith in Scorcese to imagine the film won’t fall apart under its own weight on rewatch and you seem to suggest that the ending is signposted if you know what you’re looking for. I’ll keep an eye on it.

      Thanks Fitz!

  2. The last word spoken in the movie gives up the truth. Through coercion and threat from others Chuck took on the role as Teddys therapist of two years. In those moments he intimately referred to his client as Andrew as seen in the lighthouse scenes. But as the last scene plays out and DeCaprio says…..”is it worse to live as a monster or die as an honest man”? He was referring to those that chose to decieve as “Monsters”. The calculated exchange of glances from DeCaprio to Chuck suggests he knows he’s been turned on and chooses to martyr himself because he knows he’ll never leave the island. Chuck then realizes that Teddy still knows the truth and says with passion and concern for his real friend and partner………..”Teddy”? ….. He didn’t call him “Andrew.”… he called him his real name.

    • I think that’s a pretty solid analysis, but I don’t think the character was necessarily taking about deceit of others – more what he sees as self-deceit. Could he convince himself he wasn’t responsible and live with himself? I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this one again.

  3. I think there was plenty of foreshadowing and it made complete sense…but that might be because I read the novel beforehand and was already looking at the film from the point of “I know exactly what is going to happen and I’m just watching for all the little details/clues” right now.

    BTW — This is one of those very rare instances where the movie was much better than the book (similar to THE SHINING in that regard).

    • Yep. I think The Prestige is another one of those “much better than the book” cases as well.

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