Martin Scorsese is a closet Gnostic. If you doubt this statement, it is because you have not been tapped on the shoulder and are not meant to be in the know. If you clearly look at Marty’s films, you’ll see a continuity of sphinx-like films stretching back to the very beginning with the inscrutable, quixotic Taxi Driver.
Travis Bickle is the mysterious K. of cinema, impatiently awaiting word from on high concerning his next holy errand. Unfortunately for Travis and his fellow Manhattanites, the missive never fully arrives and restless Travis runs amok attempting to strike out on his own. Or maybe the terrible, beautiful message was delivered to Travis after all. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” The liquid mirror his portal to another dimension of higher consciousness that exposes itself in the macabre theatre of the street. Or was it Travis misinterpreting the higher calling and rendering it crude and lowdown? Travis was Marty’s first unbalanced clown, weeping bitter charcoal tears and dancing like Zorba around his Pyrrhic victories.
Loathsome Rupert Pupkin was the second king of comedy to dance on Marty’s stage but who exactly was laughing? As it turned out Rupert was also not one of “the elect” and we uncomfortably watched the authorities of darkness put the screws to him for two excruciating hours, wriggling and writhing like a worm at the barbed tip of a very long hook, and in the end we were as spent as the Elizabethans after a long Jacobean revenge play. ”Poor, poor Rupert,” as my high school English teacher would say after reading my failed attempts to essay Marlowe. Except my name isn’t Rupert.
Then came Paul Hackett from After Hours attempting to flee from the unrelieved bondage that is New York at night. Run, Paul, run. How far will you go for love and a little after-work excitement? Ah, the never-ending thrill of the Soho nightlife and the inscrutable danger of it: plaster of Paris and the skeleton key; Henry Miller and Mister Softee; Club Berlin and Is That All There Is? All of these unrelated people, places, objects, and things, working in conspiratorial tandem to bring down one lowly word processor, who managed to stray from the palisades of discomfort that encompassed his blinking blue life? Come again? Are you trying to sneak one by us, Marty?
(We neatly sidestep The Last Temptation of the Christ because its esoteric Christianity arrives fully-realized from the illuminated pen of Nikos Kazantzakis and functions as the Das Kapital of Marty’s inland empire. Still, characterizing Jesus as a cross-building, l’infant terrible, who needs to be whipped into shape by Judas and the stern voices in his head, has to be seen to be believed. It’s as close to a manifesto as you’ll find in Marty’s filmography, which has been largely ignored by the bourgeois because of it’s shocking iconoclasm, and the prevailing American belief that religion and entertainment and fine china should be stored in separate cupboards.)
And then there was Max Cady as a derelict Archon delivering arcane, door-to-door justice, murderous medieval scales towed in hand, babbling scripture like some infernal tape machine. Justice, Max? Max Cady delivers himself to Sam Bowden like fiery hail over a plain of wheat grass. False witness is the accusation Max Cady brings forth to Sam Bowden, as if anybody in an audience of jurors would side him, excepting the devil’s advocate, of course. Jailed for the battery of females but capable of much much worse, Max Cady scours the town of New Essex like a biblical plague in order to bring Sam Bowden to justice. But what brand of sulphurous justice is this you wield, Max?
When we finally reach Shutter Island, the coup de grace of Marty’s gnostic oeuvre, having scaled down all the modes of irony, from the realism of Taxi Driver to the fatalism of Cape Fear, we achieve a kind of negative epiphany that Northrop Frye termed as the “irony of unrelieved bondage,” which, in plain terms, is like looking at society through a warden’s eyes: “guilt is never to be doubted.” The “nightmare of social tyranny” is the tone of Shutter Island par excellence. From the opening establishing shot of a weaving boat on the foggy sea, where nervy protagonist Teddy Daniels and his companion, Chuck Aule, are traveling to towards Shutter Island, until the ominous last image of the austere lighthouse.
In Western literature, the lighthouse is one of those ubiquitous symbols, similar to the cross, that you almost wish you could unsee in order to see again for the first time. As you can probably tell, the lighthouse’s phallic dimensions provided tons of mileage in the academic halls of psychology departments around the world. In Vienna, at the turn of the twentieth-century, the lighthouse was producing paroxysms in places besides the bosoms of buttoned-up spinsters, namely, in the acute minds of Ichabod Crane lookalike’s such as Carl Jung, who eloquently described the lighthouse as “light in the darkness of mere being.” And then taking the enterprise a little further, forever expanding the symbol’s synonymous boundaries, he interpreted the lighthouse as a symbol of individual consciousness amidst “the vast expanse of the collective unconscious” where the unconscious has “a decidedly disintegrating effect on consciousness.”
It’s easy, almost too easy, to interpret Shutter Island through a Jungian psychoanalytic lens, actually, Scorsese practically invites us to such a recourse with his richly textured and allusive symbolism, which is constructed in seeming deference to the psychoanalytic tradition, leading us around the island setting of the film, in narrower and narrower circles, like Pavlovian donkeys after an unattainable object of desire. As the film unspools, we are in sync with U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, who is also victim to the endless vortex of conspiracies, dead-ends, and trap doors operating around him like the many palliative needles of Kafka’s torture machine from In the Penal Colony.
We are inveigled to participate in Teddy Daniels’ investigations as he attempts to get to the heart of Shutter Island’s mystery. He has been summoned to Ashecliffe Hospital, home for the criminally insane, to help solve the case of Rachel Solando, a patient who disappeared from the psychiatric facility on the island. Meanwhile, Teddy admits to his partner that he has ulterior motives for taking the case, believing that mind control experiments are occurring on the secluded island, and Teddy aims to put them to an end.
Everything occurring in the film on a narrative level is foregrounded stylistically. We vicariously share in the agonies of Teddy’s pursuit of the truth amid an environment that seems to draw back and drain away when inspected, dramatizing the observer effect in physics, the theory that observing a phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. What does it mean to say we know something? How do we know what we know?
Northrop Frye said that final phase of irony featured settings like prisons, madhouses, and places of execution, and it differed from a pure inferno mainly in the belief that human suffering has an end in death. Assuredly, not a very entertaining premise from the director of such popular films as Goodfellas and The Departed, neither of which were considered as feel-good films in any drawing-room conversation, yet again, neither of which would be considered six-degrees separated from the Marquis de Sade. Shutter Island is not an artistic departure for Marty by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hardly par for the course either.
The evolution of Marty’s gnosticism traces a similar arc to Frye’s phases of irony. There is obfuscation occurring on the narrative level of Shutter Island, with shadowy characters and gloomy settings filling every inch of the frame, and also on the formal level of style; theme, tone, and composition are all imbued with immoderate levels of absurdist alienation, gothic foreboding, and expressionist mise-en-scene. The protagonist and the viewer are constantly placed on unsteady epistemological ground in the cloak-and-dagger state of affairs on the island. The detective procedural is a mere facade to the grander underlying structure of Shutter Island, which is like an art installation that once entered, sweeps you along into an interrogation of the nature of knowledge: agitating the axioms of internalism and externalism, essaying the regress problem, the subject-object distinction of participatory theory, epistemic democracy juxtaposed with monopolies of knowledge, in other words, despite being set in 1954, it is very much a contemporary film that manifests our 21st Century existential malaise.
Shutter Island is more in league with other epistemological films like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Christopher Nolan’s Memento than it is with intellectual puzzles like Inception or Vanilla Sky, which operate more like intricate Rubik’s Cube games that tease the brain but leave the mind untouched. The internet has been host to a growing constituency of conspiracy theorists that have had a field day untangling the many constricted knots of the film. The prevailing flaw of every essay encountered thus far is the problem of coherentism, which is the rejection of the assumption that regress proceeds according to a pattern of linear justification.
For the sake of brevity, we will consult Wikipedia, which summarizes the problem as such: “To avoid the charge of circularity, coherentists hold that an individual belief is justified circularly by the way it fits together with the rest of the belief system of which it is a part. This theory has the advantage of avoiding the infinite regress without claiming special, possibly arbitrary status for some particular class of beliefs. Yet, since a system can be coherent while also being wrong, coherentists face the difficulty of ensuring that the whole system corresponds to reality. Additionally, most logicians agree that any argument that is circular is trivially valid. That is, to be illuminating, arguments must be linear with conclusions that follow from stated premises.”
You don’t have to be a philosophy student to realize that much of the above sounds like the modus operandi of Shutter Island. The coherentist argument depends on a whole system corresponding to reality, and here lies the crux of the problem in Shutter Island. We are told by the doctors of Ashecliffe Hospital that the entire premise of the film is a fictional construct, a mind game that could potentially cure Teddy Daniels by virtue of his participation and assuming he plays correctly, that is, according to the rules of the game’s designers. Does this not sound eerily familiar to the reason for Teddy Daniels’ investigation of the island in the first place: the rumoured malpractice of the doctors of the Ashecliffe Hospital? But Teddy is not a U.S. Marshall, if we are to believe the doctors of Ashecliffe, he is a patient of the hospital.
This is exactly the mind-fuck we have signed up for when we enter Marty’s funhouse. Everything that crosses Marty’s optique, ends up being sucked-up into the maelstrom of infinite regress. The supposition that Teddy Daniels is a patient of Ashecliffe Hospital and a U.S. Marshall who has been summoned to the island to investigate the disappearance of a patient, are separate belief claims that are equally true and untrue by virtue of the removal of any foundational reality.
The world presented by Shutter Island is a closed system, where the demand for coherence has been surgically removed like a polyp, where every statement of belief is simultaneously true and untrue, where reality seems to bend to the will of the powers that be. Shutter Island isn’t subject to any force whose source is external to the island. Like the mystical and mysterious island setting of Lost, the closed system being presented to us functions with its own special set of rules, whose reality is only a simulacrum of the reality we understand. This sounds an awful lot like the basic rules of fiction where we suspend our disbelief, silencing the watch dog of the mind, in order to believe something surreal, sacrificing our logic for the sake of enjoyment.
The juicy piece of meat that is being dangled before Teddy Daniels and ourselves as participants in the experiments of Shutter Island, is to accept the reality being presented to us by the overlords of Ashecliffe, whether it coheres or not, because it is for our own good. If Teddy accepts the reality of the game, he is told he will be cured of his mental illness. What is his mental illness? He is told that his name is not Teddy Daniels but Andrew Laeddis and that he is responsible for the death of his wife, Dolores Chanal, the “real” Rachael Solando that he was purported to be investigating back when when we believed he was a U.S. Marshall. According to the doctors of the Ashecliffe Hospital, Teddy Daniels’ mental illness has been caused because of his denial of reality, repressing the unendurable event that occurred between his wife and himself, in effect wounding his arrested consciousness by violently removing the foundational memories of his being.
If we take the doctors at their word, this seems almost like a linear argument, and what we see presented over the span of 138 minutes, is Teddy Daniels reaction to “the cure.” If we detect kinks along the chain of reasoning, it is because we are being denied that justification can only take the form of a chain. Coherentism replaces the chain with a holistic web. And then we may be told that demanding coherence in a system of ideas seems to be an unjustified belief. Are the aesthetic choices of the film merely tropes of the horror and film-noir genre, or disclosures of a deeper artistic truth from Marty? A lighthouse is never just a lighthouse in a work of fiction, and Shutter Island is a veritable symbolic feast for psychoanalysts, archetypal critics, and gnostic adherents alike.
If we were to proceed with a checklist paralleling Shutter Island to the core beliefs of Gnosticism, there would be striking resemblance between the fictional world of one and the illusory world of the other. Philip K. Dick, the most influential speculative writer of the 20th Century, was an avowed Gnostic thinker, and he laid bare the basic tenets of Gnosticism, much like Leo Tolstoy who, nearly a century earlier, presented the world with his Gospel in Brief, which was a sifted and winnowed version of the Gospels. According to Dick, “the creator of the world was demented”, and “the world is not as it appears, in order to hide the evil in it, a delusive veil obscures it and the deranged deity.”
It is widely known that Marty is a Catholic filmmaker, or a lapsed Catholic filmmaker, in any case, and his films have always been pervaded by themes of sin, guilt, atonement, and redemption, the core themes of the Christian faith. However, that’s one side of the coin as far as Marty is concerned. The obverse side is clean and representational and ostensibly the Ego of Marty’s psyche. If we flip the coin, we find the reverse of Marty’s rational and organized belief system, where the currency has been distorted, disfigured, and debased. Shutter Island is literally “the killing stroke” of the director’s lifelong dalliance with gnosticism. The secluded island setting of the film is the archetypal world fabricated by the “deranged deity” of the gnostic worldview. The world of Shutter Island is not what it appears and there is a delusive veil obscuring its evil operations and its demented puppeteers.
Dick goes on to say, “The bleakness, the evil and pain in this world, the fact that it is a deterministic prison controlled by the demented creator causes us willingly to split with the reality principle early in life, and so to speak willingly fall asleep in delusion.” The reality principle is what Teddy Daniels has long since abandoned or been forced to abandon at the film’s inception. There are slivers of light in his mind that permit him to remember who he was, where he came from, and what his original purpose was, but these moments of lucidity are brief and fleeting when obscured by the shrouding darkness, visually represented by the elements besieging the island. Nature herself seems to be operating under the command of the island’s overlords. Teddy Daniels is thwarted at every twist and turn by the lashing storm, another obstacle amid a great chain of obstacles.
It is shown that Teddy Daniels is a WWII vet and that he had participated in the Dachau Liberation Reprisals, where American troops executed the concentration camp’s guards after they had surrendered. He is also haunted by the image of his dead wife regularly, both in his waking life and in his sleep. She routinely converses with him, sometimes guiding him, at other times cautioning him. She may be the ghost of his dead wife or a projection from his subconscious. Teddy believes his wife is dead and is convinced that her killer, an arsonist by the name of Andrew Laeddis, is being held captive on Shutter Island. Near the end of the film, when Teddy finally reaches the end of his journey and arrives at the lighthouse, the location where he believes the mind control experiments are occurring, he is confronted by one of the lead doctors at Ashecliffe, Dr. John Cawley, and also Dr. Sheehan, previously known as Chuck Aule, who was also Teddy’s partner earlier in the film.
They proceed to expose the entirety of the psychiatric role play game to Teddy and reveal that he is indeed Andrew Laeddis and that he had killed his wife after she had drowned his three children in the backyard of their home. They produce all kinds of evidence in the form of pictures, deconstructed anagrams, and a convenient back story that situates Teddy in Dauchau, laying the groundwork for a history of violence and mental trauma. I personally think it’s all bullshit. Teddy’s initial instinct is accurate. Shutter Island is host to evil mental experiments. But his personal history is meaningless because it has been invented. It doesn’t matter that if Teddy was in Dauchau or Vietnam or Iraq for that matter. It doesn’t matter if his name is Teddy or Andrew. It doesn’t matter if Teddy was married and had children. It doesn’t even matter if Teddy had murdered his wife or even his children, because if the overlords say it happened, it happened. There is no way for Teddy or ourselves to know otherwise. That information has been occluded. It has been redacted, crossed-out, and finally invented.
In Orwell’s 1984, party leader O’Brien says that, regarding the mathematically false statement that 2 + 2 = 5, control over physical reality is unimportant, so long as one controls perception, any corporeal act is possible, in accordance with the principles of doublethink: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.” He goes on to describe the future according to the INGSOC’s dominion: “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The helpless protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith, begs to know the reason for such senseless brutality, to which question O’Brien retorts: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” And so it is with Shutter Island, which is a torture chamber in its own right, like Room 101, or any of the German extermination camps during the second World War. At the end of the film, a worn-down Teddy in a moment of lucidity, nods to the doctors and accepts his fate. He will be lobotomized at the lighthouse or wherever it is the doctors conduct their butchery. There is no logic to be found on the island. There is nothing but the island. There has only been the island. And so darkness gathers round the light. And so the light flickers and fades.