‘Shutter Island’: Scorsese’s Lament

Joe Biden appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows last week to defend the Obama administration from Dick Cheney’s disgraceful attacks, which appear to suggest his earlier bloodlust has not yet been satisfied, despite everything his time in the White House accomplished. The current Vice-President had the opportunity to set out a genuine alternative to the war-first, don’t-even-ask-the-questions-later policies that Cheney had pursued; but regrettably did not. Instead, he actually seemed to play a game of ‘who has killed the most terrorists?’, citing the current ‘success rates’ against the Taliban. When Joe Biden is pressured to define success on the basis of how many human lives have been taken in a conflict in which open diplomacy has hardly been attempted, never mind exhausted, it’s time to lament.

Lamentation isn’t popular these days – we have large-scale memorials before the smoke from violent atrocities has blown away, funerals are called ‘celebrations’, and even the losers get a nice certificate when someone else wins an Oscar. We don’t do lament. So we have Martin Scorsese, former seminarian, cataloguer of the broken male psyche, and kinetic film-maker to thank for releasing his new film ‘Shutter Island’ at the beginning of the historic Christian season of Lent.

‘Shutter Island’, in which federal marshals investigate the disappearance of a patient from a secure institution on a windswept Massachusetts island in 1954, turns out to be a metaphor for what happens when an individual (or a country, or an era) becomes detached from the consequences of their actions; pretending to face trauma by burying it, and in that sense, it’s the ideal unofficial sequel to Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’, a film that suggested enjoying really violent entertainment the reason we are willing to entertain real violence. ‘Shutter Island’ risks telling an unpalatable truth: that war is not clean, that the line between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘enemy’ is ambiguous, that the post-Second World War era shattered community bonds, and allowed hidden personal brokenness to reach epidemic proportions. So far, so depressing, but theologically this feels like a Psalm lamenting human selfishness and misdirection; cinematically Scorsese has constructed a vastly compelling ‘B’ movie fan letter, filled with entertaining performances (Leonardo di Caprio as the marshal Ted, Ben Kingsley as the institution’s director, and especially Michelle Williams as a kind of ghostly voice of conscience), extraordinary use of music, beautifully framed images, and ultimately a serious commitment to telling a story that, while set in a specific, disturbing location, is so universal that it could have profound meaning for anyone who approaches.

Why make this film? The answer comes over the end credits, as Dinah Washington sings a song that could have been taken from the deleted scenes in an ancient Hebrew text:

‘This bitter earth
Well, what fruit it bears.
What good is love
That no one shares.’

The song makes sense in the case of the main character in ‘Shutter Island’, but its use here is about more than Ted’s personal loss: it’s being played over the end credits to bring a lament about our culture to its minor-key crescendo. Who is responsible for our nation’s sins? You? Me? ‘Them’? How can we live with ourselves when the inaction or action of those we have elected leads to the pointless deaths of hundreds of thousands on another continent? ‘Shutter Island’ asks us to face ourselves, and not hide; and to recognize that accepting responsibility – that we are capable of being the ‘bad guys’ – we do not have to shred our own dignity. If the line between good and evil runs through each person, and not between groups of people, then even after we have faced our shared culpability in structural evil, we may see that there is good in us too. The film doesn’t present a solution, or at least not a palatable one; although it does suggest that merely making a decision to take one step out of the darkness is better than nothing. But the purpose of ‘Shutter Island’ is not to give us answers: it is to lament, which means that embedded within it is both a warning of what we can be when we lose sight of our interdependence as human beings, and, let us hope, a reminder that the purpose of lament is to prepare us for a new start.


17 responses to “‘Shutter Island’: Scorsese’s Lament

  1. Pingback: Tensegrities » Blog Archive » “Shutter Island” for Lent?

  2. Kathryn Rickert, Ph.D.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am a recent phd…in lament. I appreciate your strong sense that lament is needed. It is. And, you seem to be mixing up lament with repentance. We need to do both. However, for the most part, in the laments of the Bible, what you describe, i.e. as deep regreat for what we have done, is contrasted with Lament, as distress at what has been done to us. Both, are very important…and yet differ considerably one from the other.

  3. Boomer Hollywood’s been sold out to the most awesomely genocidal regime in history (—across the Pacific ) -for deacdes! The once promising, long rich and decades stale Scorsese
    continues to balk any revelation of revealed
    truth whatsoever as he serves up yet another
    round of routine, over-blown retreads.

    A total balking disgrace that our ‘self’-sensitive
    self-basting comfort-zone should awaken to.


  4. garethihiggins

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what you’re saying here – I do hope that people will see ‘Shutter Island’, a film that seemed to me so rich with subtext that I was compelled to see it three times in the week since its release here in the US.

    [Spoiler warning – but I’ve done my best to disguise it]:

    On the one hand, ‘Shutter Island’ is a fantastically well-crafted ‘B’ movie homage, which will delight fans of Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sam Fuller alike; it also has a magnificent music track sewn together by Robbie Robertson; but beneath the surface of gorgeous fun-shock there is something very substantial going on: ultimately it’s about how ‘the good guys’ define themselves as such; and what they/we have to do to live with them/ourselves after they/we’ve won wars. It is, to my mind, the most political film Scorsese has ever made; and the one with most immediate contemporary resonance. I think it’s one of his four or five best films; and I can’t wait to see it again.

  5. I guess that I need to see the film…and your comments compel me to do that. Still, I want to point out that what you are describing, with “what we have to do to live with…ourselves…after we’e won wars” is an act of repentance. And the people who suffered in that war, they are those who will lament what we did to them. Those two sounds are alike in intensity, expression of distress…but the directions are the opposite: one is taking responsibility for something that we did, and the other is claiming recognition and response…from some other who did that war, violence. Not the same and we need both.

    • garethihiggins

      I’m happy to acknowledge the semantic difference between lamentation and repentance, and grateful for you pointing it out. Having said that, I think lamentation is an appropriate word to use to describe what’s going on in ‘Shutter Island’ – it’s a kind of sorrowful reflection on the shadow side rather than an attempt at turning away.

  6. It’s not a semantic difference, it is a completely different experience. As you say, “Sorrowful reflection on the shadow side rather than an attempt at turning away” IS repentance at its very best. So…go ahead, be daring use the real word.
    Repentance is even more rare than lament in this culture. Repentance is the voice of those who do the harm; lament is the voice of the harmed. Not at all the same thing.

  7. garethihiggins

    It’s not through any lack of daring that I didn’t use the word ‘repentance’. And when I said ‘semantic’ difference I was referring simply to the fact that there’s a difference between the meaning of the two words; I do however think that ‘Shutter Island’ is engaged in something that looks like a bit of both lamentation and repentance: because the object of this film is both the harmed and the harmer. I’m very interested to hear your thoughts when you’ve seen the film.

  8. That makes more sense…that it would be both repent and lament. I will see this film eventually…but I have a rather limited number of
    slots for film in my schedule…So, it may be a while.
    I will do my best to see it as soon as it fits in.

  9. —Wishing still that Scorsese would break out
    and leave the Hollywood status quo definitively
    behind him. Money is NOT what Scorsese —or
    anyone else in Boomer Hollywood needs.
    Sick fantasy —Scorsese buys a couple of
    HD cameras —straps on a backpack —and
    starts emulating the late, great works and spirit
    of John Huston. NEVER happen —but STILL
    we hope…

  10. Kathryn Rickert

    I still need to see the movie, but I have a comment again about the connection of lament and repent. Yes, I admit that I am stuck in some kind of either or with those two, and a number of other apparent but possibly inaccurate “opposites.”

    From the description above it sounds as though the point of the film is to make clear that lack of clarity between the good and bad. On the one hand that is a most appealing project, especially when it pertains to the reputation of this nation that has SUCH a mixed history! However, this blending or even hybrid of good and evil is not at all appealing when there are clear innocents suffering at the hands of clear bad guys. Repentance fits the first scenario, and lament the second. Once again, as much as it may be more comforting to say that we are all mixture of good and evil, there are evils which simply do not allow anything but repentance. And, that is not a lament! Lament expresses grief rather than guilt.

  11. Regardless of what word you use to describe the plight of humanity or any particular facet of it, it is true nonetheless that the average mind is for the most part, incapable of escaping it’s own apparent nature of duality. That “self evident” nature has an inherent blindness which causes fear, confuses the senses and has us question our essence. We are gods raised by devils; unknowing as they are. Look into my eyes and know me for what I am. I am you.

  12. —Over wrought, non-esstential, over-produced,
    stale sewcond rate —Stephen King.

    ——who needs it?

    -case closed-

  13. Watching it I realized that all my reasons for doing things, all my stories, that my whole life is a fraud and is not a real ‘thing’ in itself – nothing exists outside of my mind.
    The dreamer in the film just didn’t wake up. He couldn’t totally disconnect from his story. Society as we know it. This probably won’t make sense. Brian Davis (above) seems to be saying the same thing.

  14. Pingback: My Top Ten Films of 2010: Better Late Than Never « The Red Collision

  15. I just saw this film on dvd at home, so I may have missed a lot. I would need to see it again and wouldn’t mind doing that actually. It is a well made film, with perfect visuals, well framed shots, and music that couples well with the images to pull you into it from the very beginning, and all with great characterization and acting. The plot is reminiscent of Hitchcock type stuff, with interesting plot twists that unfold and unravel at the end. And, at the end, I’m wondering , “What is it all about?” I feel, “Hey, I like it, and I FEEL the message, though I don’t quite understand it all nor can I explain it.” The merging of scenes from the past wars and the past murder(s) are obviously compelling the viewer to find the meaning, when coupling things further with a plot that involves reality vs. what exists in the mind of the person/people who might (or might not) be insane. But it is the very ending song, played over the final ending credits that gives the message a final wrapping. “This Bitter Earth” is played, and the words are slow, sad, and clear, yet with a dash of optimism at the end of the song. I think, guys/gals, that it is a huge LAMENT…an expression of grief by and for humanity, for our plight, and it sends a final hopeful suggestion for us all to find a purpose, find meaning, and make our lives count. Yes, the word REPENT implies the feeling/perspective from the one doing something wrong, so that is there, too, but sometimes it is simply the GRIEF that one wishes to simply express or convey, the GRIEF that even the wrong-doer can feel, and more importantly, the GRIEF we as the viewers feel at the end, and that is why it definitely is about LAMENTATION. If someone who has studied the words “lament” and/or “repent” in depth comes to another conclusion, I respect their expertise on the English language; but, I have to say, the average lay person knows how the language is actually used by the lay people, no matter what rhetorical side-meanings might exist. I’d vote, for purposes of discussing a film, to go with the general consensus on usage. Thus, the film, to many people, would trigger GRIEF and LAMENTATION….but yes, with issues of REPENT also merging into the picture. My 2 cents, folks. Btw, I really really loved the song at the end over the credits…..what a spot-on idea to wrap things up! (Yes, I’d have preferred the film to be less “hollywood”, but I’m not an expert, so I can get past that and just feel and enjoy it. Still, I also would like to see this film with a bit more of an “art film” quality to it, but I am not the one who made the film, so I accept it and can certainly still greatly admire it…in short, I don’t want a prejudice against hollywood conventions to force me to overlook the really good things about “art” that still incorporates “hollywood”. Good night, folks!