Shutter Island: Guilt, Confession, and Sanity

Spoiler Alert: Some surprises might be ruined by reading this review!!

“Is it more sane to live as a monster or die as a good man?” Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film Shutter Island.

Scorsese said his life ‘has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.’  He grew up a very religious Catholic in New York City, and even attended seminary to become a priest for a year.  However, he dropped out and became one of the most prestigious American filmmakers.  He know calls himself a lapsed Catholic, but his films continue to wrestle with spiritual themes.  Often his films depict a character who has gotten himself cornered into a situation where there are two strong desires, allegiances, or emotional pulls at work.  In this situation, what is right and wrong?  Can morality be found in a seemingly immoral world?  What path do our bad choices, particularly our violent ones, send us down?   How his characters navigate this tension is the drama of his flims from The Departed, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, to even his Last Temptation of Christ.  Perhaps Scorcese describes this tension in his films so well, because he feels this tension in his own life.  He told the Telegraph in an interview:  “I was raised with gangsters and priests. And now, as an artist, in a way, I’m both a gangster and a priest.”

His latest film, Shutter Island, certainly has this tension.  This time Scorsese puts the spotlight on our ability to admit the evil we have done.  He does this on two levels.  In the background of the film is our own American history.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is Teddy Daniels, who fought in World War II.  He’s still haunted for his role in liberating a nazi prison camp and perhaps his part in the unjust slaying of German soldiers who were working at the camp.  It’s a reminder of America’s virtuous role in the world and why America regards itself as the moral standard of nations.  But, again, in the background, Scorsese seems to hint at America’s own evil it committed after the war in trying to stop the spread of communism.  It’s refusal to acknowledge its wrongdoings creates problems.  The same theme is developed in a much more powerful way in the personal story of Teddy Daniels.

The world seems to be a place where there is no moral order.  The warden of the psychiatric prison while giving Teddy Daniels a ride says to him, “God loves violence.  There is no moral order at all.  There’s only ‘can my violence conquers yours?'”  Teddy has participated in this world of violence.  He has been a soldier, a U.S. Marshal, and has his own heart wrenching story as well.  Yet, throughout the film, Teddy denies that there is violence in him.  He has created a fictional version of himself that denies his wrongdoing.  Yet, his fantasy prevents him from participating in reality.  This is the Scorsese tension: sanity or insanity.  The path to sanity means having to live with your own moral guilt and admit your a monster.  Yet, by choosing to cling to the fantasy, we are able to still believe that we are good.  Without saying explicitly how the movie ends, we are left wondering is he in his right mind or not in what he chooses.  The movie seems to hint that he is.  Then, we are left asking what is motivating him: wanting to still cling to his fantasy or willingly taking the punishment out of his sense of guilt?  Either way, if we go back to the question of whether there is a moral order to the universe, we have to say Shutter Island depicts one.  Otherwise, how do we explain guilt?  And, is God really a God of violence?

Thus, we see a powerful pointer to the human condition.  We live in a world where sometimes to survive, it seems we have to commit a necessary evil.  Yet, there is real guilt tied to our evil.  Yet, we have two ways to deal with our guilt: to deny it or to confess it.  One leads to insanity and lack of connection to reality.  The other leads to sanity.  From a Biblical perspective, this is partly where God is in this world of violence…conviction.  He does not leave unjustice unpunished, but withholds his hand to allow for a time of repentance.  And, thankfully, God wakes us from our delusions to move us to admit our guilt.

One final point about the movie is the moral courage of the psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley.  He founds this hospital/prison for the worst of convicts out of a great love and respect for them.  In the past, he tells us that this patients would have been tortured.  In his time, they are medicated.  His approach is to treat them with respect and talk to them in the hope that they will return to sanity.  For us, this is the biblical model.  Even the human beings who have committed the worst atrocities still are deserving of being shown respect as one whom God has created.  While Shutter Island does not meditate on the hope of forgiveness, the Bible gives us that hope that if we confess our sins, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).  And, yet, in the following verse we have a warning as well: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”


About Ryan Wampler

Much of my thinking is trying to connect the dots between the Bible, the lens through which I see the world, and the way I actually live my life. I’m a Mizzou grad, and got a theological education at a post-grad school in St. Louis. My particular areas of interest are: reflecting on books and films and connecting theology and culture.
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