The Epitome of an Unreliable Narrator: Shutter Island.

Shutter Island is one of those ‘Fight-Club-Sixth-Sense-You-Have-To-Watch-It-Twice’ films. For those of you that haven’t seen Shutter Island, then I suggest that you go watch it and return to us after you’ve finished as this post is going to be full to the brim with spoilers.

The shallow plot that we are presented with by Scorsese at first is that the film centers around two marshals who are looking into the disappearance of an inmate on the secluded Shutter Island prison for the criminally insane. However, it appears to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) that there is something that doesn’t quite add up and he believes that the institution has something to do with her disappearance. It is later revealed to the audience that Teddy himself is an inmate and that he has constructed a fantasy for himself that he is a marshal looking for a missing patient in an effort to avoid the trauma that he faced in his past.

The plot twist seems to come from nowhere but through the use of cinematography and subtle hints, upon second viewing, we can see that Scorsesee was telling us that Teddy was a patient all along.

Every single moment is filmed from Teddy’s point of view. The usual run of films will have scenes that give certain characters a break so that the audience are given a glimpse into what is happening outside of the main character’s storyline. This isn’t the case with Shutter Island. Even the moments where it seems like the scene isn’t going to include Teddy, he still appears such as when the board members are discussing what to do with the inmates during the storm. Just after we are shown them in a room by themselves, Teddy sneaks in.

It’s something subtle enough that we might not even notice it during the first viewing – Leonardo is an A-List actor so it’s not rare that the director would try to use him as much as possible. But the second time around, it opens up a whole new factate that we are actually under the influence as viewers of an unreliable narrator. We see all of Teddy’s hallucinations, we see everything from his point of view and how he wants us to view certain people.

For example, we automatically believe that there is something wrong with the doctors’ intentions as they both seem as if they are keeping a secret. However, if this was presented from their point of view then we would know that there was something about Teddy that he was hiding from us. It opens up the interpretation that we can’t trust anything that is happening in front of us – whether moments are flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations or are happening currently becomes a blurred line.

Even though we think we can distinguish them through the editing style or colours, this isn’t necessarily the case. In the scene where Teddy and Chuck interview some of the other inmates to find out about the Rachel Solando case, there is a moment where the female inmate that they interview reaches for her drink but doesn’t lift anything. When she puts her hand down, we see the glass – but the shot isn’t from Teddy’s point of view. This gives us an indication in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment that Teddy isn’t an honest depiction of what is happening.

At the beginning of the scene, we are also given another detail which is a running motif throughout the film – the reaction of the staff in relation to Teddy. When he first arrives on the island, he is greeted by the guards who are on edge. On first viewing with knowing what we know from the exposition Teddy gave on the boat, it is reasonable that the guards would be on edge with a patient missing. But when we know that he is a patient then we realise that they are on edge because they are worried that one of their most dangerous patients is effectively loose. Referring back to the interview scene, we are shown a nurse sat a table away from the ‘marshals’ and the patients, ready with what appears to be a sedative needle in case something was to happen.

We know now, however, that it isn’t just for the patients that he’s interviewing. It’s for if he suddenly switches to ‘Andrew Laeddis’. Whether the patients in the interview are actual patients or whether they are actors is ambiguous and gives another clue that we can’t trust everything that Teddy sees. Even though some of it is orchestrated by his own hallucinations, some of it is also orchestrated by the institution such as Teddy’s encounter with the so-called-missing ‘Rachel Solando’.

Thus poses the question – who can the audience trust? Teddy/Andrew is a sympathetic character that the audience are supposed to root for even after seeing what he had done to his wife. When we are shown the murder scene, it is also revealed to us that he only did this because his wife killed his children. However, knowing that we haven’t been able to trust whatever has been presented to us as truth throughout the entirety of the film . . . can we trust Andrew’s version of events? We have seen him as haunted throughout the length of the film; by his acts of war, by not being there for his wife when he was drinking, by her death when she was burned by Andrew Laeddis etc. All of this is constructed to make him an empathetic character.

There are still many people who believe that Teddy Daniels really was a marshal and that the ‘Andrew Laeddis’ plot was something that was constructed by the staff at Ashecliffe in order to cover up what they are doing to their patients i.e. lobotomising them. This isn’t an interpretation that can be entirely disregarded, however. The final line, ‘This place makes me wonder, what’s better? To live as a monster of die as a good man?’ gives more weight to the first interpreation being accurate. But we are shown that Teddy is given drugs and cigarettes by the staff so it could be possible that they are trying to set him up.

What do you guys think? Let us know what films you would like us to analyse next!

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