"Is it better to live a violent man or to die a good man?" asks the central figure, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. These binary preoccupations litter this psychological thriller: where is the liminal divide between an imagined world and reality? Was the poet, John Dryden, correct when he wrote, "Great wits are sure to madness near allied,/And thin partitions do their bounds divide."? How thin is the partition within us between sanity and insanity? Must a school of psychiatry that favours invasive surgery (e.g. transorbital lobotomy) operate in opposition to a school that favours medication and therapy? How do the personal traumas of the past impact on the way we live in the present? Did "God give us violence to wage in his honour" or did "God give us moral order"?
With such questions, Scorsese subverts what, on the surface, looks like his toying with the thriller and noir genres. The film opens with a ferry nosing through a claustrophobic fog as it makes its way to Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. A sinister score increases the audience's sense of uneasiness. In the toilet, US Marshall Daniels is being sick and looking in the mirror, admonishes himself, "pull yourself together." But this order is more than an attempt to maintain the appearance of his office in front of his new partner, Chuck Aule. It is designed to alert the audience to the fact that Scorcese is placing the action within the fractured mind of his eponymous hero.
The film fails as a thriller because the clues are clumsily manhandled and as a result, it is not disbelief that is suspended but suspense itself. Within the first twenty minutes, the final, flaccid plot twist is evident. But where Shutter Island succeeds is in finding cinematic metaphors for a mind in meltdown. We recognise the labyrinthine tunnels and chambers that Teddy Daniels prowls as the stock creepy sets of the suspense genre. But, in Scorsese's hands they become something more profound. They are an image of the imaginary prisons that the mind can construct for itself. "Psychoanalysis reassorts the maze of stray impulses, and tries to wind them around the spool to which they belong," Freud told George Sylvester Viereck in 1930. "Or, to change the metaphor, it supplies the thread that leads a man out of the labyrinth of his own unconscious."
Shutter Island is not about what will be found at the centre of the maze but about whether one can escape the pathological maze of neurosis and fear. Finding an answer to this question is essential for the person who is mentally-ill and for the professionals who are trying to lay a safe route out this disordered maze. In a different context, I have been reading about the experiences of people bereaved by suicide in Alison Wertheimer's A Special Scar. The questions here are not dissimilar to those explored in Shutter Island. Many of the bereaved ask whether it is possible to retrieve any sense of meaning from what appears a meaningless act. Here are a couple of examples of people mentally wrestling with the trauma of suicide:
It's a riddle that goes round and round and round in your mind and drives you absolutely crazy for years and years and suddenly you think - I'm tormenting myself. I shall just never know the exact and precise reason. (Pam)
I'll never know. I've accepted I'll never know, but it does seem important that I don't know. I should know. Why don't I know? I'd like to know why. I don't know why I want to know. It doesn't change anything. (Heather)
Both Shutter Island and the above testimonies point to an aboriginal instinct within human beings: our need for meaning. No matter how oblique that meaning, we find it impossible to order our lives without it. We require our lives to be meaningful. Without meaning we stop functioning in a way that is recognizably human. If our lives are to be more than a series of disconnected meaningless actions and thoughts then we require some unifying principle or narrative arc. Searching through the jumble of meanings (some benign, others malign, many superficial and phony), the human project is to find "the perfect thing" that can holds us together as individuals and communities even in our most fragile, broken moments. Throughout her life the poet, Elizabeth Jennings, suffered from acute depression and spent long periods in psychiatric units. In her poem Night Sister, she concludes that enough meaning is to be found in the vocation of compassion, the sharing in the sufferings of others, for us to be human:
How is it possible not to grow hard,
To build a shell around yourself when you
Have to watch so much pain, and hear it too?
Many you see are puzzled, wounded; few
Are cheerful long. How can you not be scarred?
To view a birth or death seems natural,
But these locked doors, these sudden shouts and tears
Graze all the peaceful skies. A world of fears
Like the ghost-haunting of the owl appears.
And yet you love that stillness and that call.
You have a memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.
I never met a calling quite so pure.
My fears are silenced by the things you've done.
We have grown cynical and often miss
The perfect thing. Embarrassment also
Convinces us we cannot dare to show
Our sickness. But you listen and we know
That you can meet us in our own distress.
A Special Scar: the experiences of people bereaved by suicide, Alison Wertheimer, Brunner-Routledge 2001
New Collected Poems, Elizabeth Jennings, Carcanet 2002