“Asylum Movies:” Shutter Island

I remember, for some reason, Shutter Island being another “banned movie,” much like Black Swan. However, when I talked to my mother about it, she said she had no memory of it and she didn’t think she would have banned me from seeing it. Regardless, I saw the Scorsese-directed DiCaprio vehicle for the first time the other day.

My initial thought is that the score wants you to know that this is a DRAMATIC MOVIE where THINGS HAPPEN. (Its repeating, droning brass sound was the first of several similarities to the movie Inception, also starring DiCaprio, which came out the same year.) If you’re not familiar with the plot, it concerns DiCaprio as a Government Marshal investigating the escape of a patient/inmate on the Shutter Island facility for the criminally insane. Mark Ruffalo plays his investigative partner, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays the head psychiatrist.


The Shutter Island facility (for the “criminally insane”)  is nice and well-maintained – by the inmates. I shan’t call them “patients,” as Dr. Ben Kingsley prefers, because they’re kept in literal chains. “They used to be shackled and left in their own filth,” he says pompously to DiCaprio’s unsympathetic Marshal. Great – now they’re shackled and pruning bushes. You fixed it! Although I should point out that at least they’re getting some outdoor time – the facility I was in twice boasted on its website about its “wellness garden,” but I never met anyone who’d ever been allowed in it.

Leo’s character (whose name quite honestly escapes me, even though I can remember minor characters’ perfectly) is completely unsympathetic, regarding the inmates as common or garden criminals and treating everyone at the facility as though they were somehow contaminated. “Sanity’s not a choice, Marshal. You can’t just choose to get over it,” opines Kingsley, in the first line I’ve felt resonate among the excuses and platitudes. Between Kingsley and the other primary psychologist, the whole profession is played true to the Hollywood stereotype – that of the smug, psychoanalzying Freudian who responds to every sentence with a knowing comment about your defense mechanisms or penis envy. Movies like this are why people hate psychologists.  Leo later reveals his wife was killed in a fire set by a mentally ill man, and he longs for revenge. Some pretty healthy stuff.

Basically the movie is a solid 3 hours long with ads, and has a convoluted and winding plot, which all negates itself in a massive plot twist at the end: Leo was never a Marshal, and is himself a ‘patient’ at Shutter Island. The whole thing has been a massive roleplay therapy designed to force him to come to terms with the fact that

a.) his wife drowned their children in a river for no reason

b.) he subsequently killed his wife.

There was never any fire and he made up the revenge plot in his delusional mind. I have problems with this plot twist for a bunch of reasons, the first being that the moment you examine it with any scrutiny it collapses like a flan in a cupboard, but I’ll focus on my other reasons which are:

1.) Mental illness doesn’t work this way. Diagnoses are conspicuously left out of this movie; they talk about inmates only in terms of what crimes they committed. Leo’s actual diagnosis is never discussed but they repeatedly say he has “delusions,” as though that were itself a diagnosis. Delusions are a symptom, not an illness. They also don’t account for the complete amnesia his character has, making him forget his entire identity in favor of the assumed Marshal forgery. There’s a thing called ‘dissociative fugue’, in which people can become amnesiac and even commit crimes (it’s a popular legal defense strategy), but they would not assume a new identity – they usually are found hours or days later, wandering and dazed. Taking liberties with how mental illness actually works seems harmless, but it can contribute in many ways to society’s misunderstanding and subsequent stigmatization of mental disorders.

2.) This “treatment” is wildly unethical. The therapy they’re giving Leo is a combination of highly dangerous (fictional) drugs combined with completely rewriting his entire identity and forcing him into traumatic situations. IRBs didn’t exist for these places, not in the 50s, so the lack of ethical oversight isn’t a mistake; it’s just weird that it’s treated as a good thing. This movie has a lot to say about asylums – Shutter Island is clearly not a nice place and definitely skews ‘prison’ more than ‘hospital.’ They repeatedly clarify that it’s for the ‘criminally insane’ and that all of the patients there have committed crimes, but never give any of the patients’ diagnoses or rationales behind their crimes. One man ripped a woman’s face off – reason unknown.  A woman killed her husband, because he beat her and cheated on her – no diagnosis. This movie didn’t even really need to be set in an asylum, they only needed Leo to be “crazy” at the end. They’re just banking on the fact that people think asylums are creepy. That’s my issue, in general, with “asylum movies” –  everybody falls all over themselves to portray how horrible asylums were, but they don’t really care about mentally ill people – they just want to use them for their historical torture porn.

Random notes I took as I watched:

  • This is by far a better role for Ben Kingsley than Guru Tugginmapudha, but I’m still disappointed in him
  • Leo’s pronunciation of “excaped” is killing me slowly
  • I am really not a fan of concentration camps being used as props in movies even more so than mental hospitals, and this is no exception
  • Leo’s German is deplorable – I assume on purpose, since he’s done good accents when coached before
  • Because of the presence of Leo DiCaprio and continual flashbacks to a dead wife, there are a lot of similarities to Inception, which is a much better movie even though it was made after this one
  • The presence of people of color exclusively as staff is one of those great examples  of filmmakers casting POC when they think it’s “historically accurate”, but actually just when it gives them an excuse to not cast any as leads. For the record, there were actually a disproportionate number of black Americans diagnosed as schizophrenic, so they could easily have been cast as patients.
  • Kingsley’s description of the ‘war’ in psychology is very accurate
  • The word ‘zombie’ was not common parlance in the ’50s – the book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow” hadn’t come out yet to spread tales of Haitian voodoo to the West
  • The Andrew Breene character is a weird combination of tropes of mental illness and traits that will make the audience hate him – it’s like Scorsese wanted to have Leo psychologically torture a mental patient, but didn’t want him to seem like a bad person for it, so he made him a racist so we’d be cool with it
  • There are no televisions in the facility? What an odd thing to specifically mention. It’s the 50s – TVs are pretty common in households; you’d think they could spring for at least one to keep the inmates occupied.
  • The dreams Leo has (technicolor, surreal, full of metaphor and layered meaning) are not the kinds of dreams schizophrenic people (or any people) have, by and large. My most interesting dream this week was about going to pay for an expensive meal and finding my wallet was full of $97 bills
  • I feel bad but I laughed at an orderly saying to a patient in the background “why is it you every time?”
  • That’s an inaccurate description of a transorbital lobotomy – there’s no ‘electroshock’ involved, just regular anesthesia

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