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By Randal Stevens · June 14, 2010
SPOILER ALERT: The following blog contains extensive spoilers about the book and film Shutter Island, including the ending.
This week saw the DVD and Blu-ray release of Martin Scorsese's latest feature, Shutter Island. My roommate, who, like me, is a huge Scorsese fan, got it on Netflix this week and saw it for the first time. If you haven't seen it already, you should do so immediately and you should do so without first consulting what the critics have to say about it (if you haven't done so already). With a Top Critics score of only 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, Shutter Island is the most lukewarmly received Scorsese feature since Kundun back in 1997 (67%). Upon its theatrical release in February, critics decried the film for being too long, crafting creepiness but not tension, looking good but feeling shallow and above all else, a predictable and thus ineffective ending. In my opinion, all those critiques fit into one of two categories of nonsense: the less likely nonsense, in which the critic just wants to be contrarian to raise their own profile; or, the more likely nonsense, in which the critic is gripping onto Andre Bazin's auteur theory. That is to say, I think many of the critics who are poo-pooing the greatest director in history seem to think the director should be more important than the genre he or she is serving. When the B-horror, noir and thriller archetypes rang loud and clear throughout the 138-minute running time more so than Scorsese's voice, they declared it illegitimate. Bullshit.
But I digress. I want to focus on the most polarizing plot point of the entire film for this blog: the twist ending. The twist ending comes when it's revealed that Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at the mental institution on Shutter Island who has been involved in an elaborate role-playing experiment during which his doctors hoped he would deduce his own guilt in the murder of his wife, whom he killed after coming home and finding she had murdered their three children. Many people complained that the twist was predictable and therefore, the entire experience had been a waste. That's straight up bullshit. For one thing, the endings to more than half the films you'll see out there are predictable, but the power of the film does not rest in how surprising the ending is, but how much it makes sense in conjunction with the material that came before it. For another, it also depends on how much you've enjoyed the ride it took to get to that ending and with Scorsese responsible for calling the shots (and may I add, beautifully photographed shots courtesy of Robert Richardson) how bad of a ride can it really be?
But once again, I digress. I would argue that the revelation at the end of Shutter Island is not so much a twist ending as much as a logical progression (or revelation, if you will) of the narrative and that the twist actually comes during this exchange Teddy/Andrew has with his partner/doctor, Chuck Aule/Dr. Sheehan after Teddy/Andrew has realized and acknowledged what he's done:
Teddy: So what's our next move?
Chuck: You tell me.
Teddy: I gotta get off this rock, Chuck. Get back to the mainland. Whatever the hell's going on here, it's bad. Don't worry partner, they're not gonna catch us.
Chuck: That's right. We're too smart for 'em.
Teddy: Yeah, we are, aren't we? You know, this place makes me wonder.
Chuck: Yeah? What's that boss?
Teddy: Which would be worse – to live as a monster or to die as a good man?
I italicized the last line to indicate where I think the twist comes into play. You see, in the book, that line is nowhere to be found; it's entirely an addition from screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis. "Well, why does that matter?" you may be saying. Well, it really doesn't, I suppose, except that it gives the film an entirely different resolution than the book has.
For the most part, the film is almost a carbon copy of the book with one exception: the story ends with Chuck saying, "We're too smart for 'em," Teddy agreeing and then being approached by an orderly with a lobotomy pick wrapped in a towel. With that ending, it would seem to apply that Teddy has not accepted what he's done and is still in extensive denial. However, in the film, Teddy adds that extra line and gives quite a furtive glance to Chuck in the process. To me, the comment and the glance imply that Teddy has indeed realized and accepted what he's done. He does not, however, want to live with knowing what he's done. Teddy does not revert back to his denial form because he's still crazy, but because he wants to be lobotomized and therefore be unable to remember what he did to his wife and what his wife did to his children. He'd rather die – in this sense, figuratively – a good man trying to atone for what he did, than live as something that's worse than a murderer – a murderer in denial of his crime. This is a twist to me, though admittedly, it's less an earth-shattering "He was dead the whole time!" twist than it is a subtle "Theo got shot in the gut" twist from Children of Men.
Some of you may disagree that this is a twist and that's okay. What's important isn't whether you consider Teddy's line to be or twist or not; what's important is that with one simple line, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (I just realized how similar Laeta is to Laeddis) managed, with just one simple line, to add an entirely new dimension to the Shutter Island adaptation. See kids? Not every screenplay has to be The Usual Suspects. (Though if you ask me, The Usual Suspects is worth only one viewing).