Labyrinth of Madness

In Scorcese’s latest film Shutter Island, he masterfully leads us into the dark labyrinth of insanity, and he twists and bends our perceptions of madness until we find ourselves complicit in our own kind of mad paranoia. Focusing on U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Scorcese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) who are assigned to Shutter Island to help find an escaped mental patient, Scorcese takes a basic cat-and-mouse mystery and twists the plot until our minds are bent into as many confusing and tangled corridors as the institution itself. As Teddy and Chuck seek clues to the disappearance of the missing Rachel Solando, rather than finding solutions to the puzzle, all we find is more confusion and paranoia at every turn.  As the movie progresses, we question the line between sanity and insanity, between delusion and reality. Eventually, like the paranoids locked away in the asylum on Shutter Island, we come to the realization that nothing can be trusted. Just like the island’s name, we feel the shutters of our sense of reality and sanity close in on us, and what we are left with is a dark and foreboding understanding of the insanity of everything.

Though set in the 1950s during the Post-WWII McCarthy era America (the height of American institutionalized paranoia), the movie uses the historic specificity of its time to transcend history and paint a pretty dark picture of the inherent violence and corruption of everything. Much of the movie centers around an impending hurricane that eventually arrives, batters the island and reduces everything to chaos. With threads of McCarthy witch-hunting, Nazi death camps, and American Civil War prison camps, we get the sense that Teddy isn’t just caught up in the specific moment of his circumstances, but that he is a kind of “everyman” navigating his way through the hurricane of human history. In one scene, when the Warden takes Teddy for a ride in his jeep, he looks at Teddy with a knowing and sadistic smile and says, “God loves violence. It’s in us. It’s what we are. God gave us violence to wage in his honor. There is no moral order . . . if you had the chance, you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts.” This savage and nihilistic sentiment rests at the core of the movie.

Throughout history, men have cracked each other’s skulls open and eaten the meaty parts, and they legitimize their actions by creating institutions to carry out their violent acts. They create militia, death camps, slavery and insane asylums. The minute Teddy and Chuck step onto Shutter Island, we feel the imposing madness of the institution itself close in on them. As the gates of Shutter Island close behind Teddy and Chuck, men in black uniforms frame the scene and lurk in every corner, representing the oppression of the military state. Once inside the institution the boundaries between law and order and sanity and insanity rapidly begin to blur, until we question whether the institution itself is what is really mad. Everything in the institution is laden the sense of a hallucinatory nightmare —  cages, chains, shackles, bars, cells, and winding stairways that only lead to more winding stairways. As Teddy winds his way through the institution, we feel it closing in on him and us, until we realize that no one can be trusted. From the moment the gates close, we feel the stability of Teddy’s ground start to crumble as he is caught in the insanity of the institution itself. The uniformed guards, the sneering mocking nurses, Max Von Sydow’s ominous Dr. Naehring, Ben Kingsley’s gleefully self-deluded Dr. Cawley, and the whole stream of “patients” all seem insane while at the same time they work together to make Teddy question his own sanity. It’s a real mind fuck.

Scorcese’s masterful direction beautifully creates the movie’s claustrophobia and paranoia. It’s like Scorcese took the Dennis Lehane book on which the movie is based, and he lifted out poetic nuggets, images that Lehane expresses in just a few words, and turned them into enormous portents of beautiful paranoia.  A cigarette resting on a cliff edge, ashes falling through a room, rats crawling on rocks, a leaking ceiling —  every single image in the movie is laden with paranoia and insanity.   Two of the most beautiful examples of Scorcese taking a few words from the book and expanding them into cinematically gorgeous extended sequences both involve memories from Teddy’s past.

In an early scene, Teddy walks into the excessively luxurious headquarters of Drs. Cawley and Naehring, and he hears classical music playing. In the book, Dr. Naerhing identifies the music as Mahler, and Lehane very briefly describes Teddy’s memory of his experience at Dachau. In the movie, it is Teddy who identifies the Mahler, and then Scorcese leads us on a long, hallucinatory, brilliantly bloody and poetic recalled memory of the Gestapo officer lying on the floor in a pool of blood with half his face missing. As he reaches for the gun over and over in perfect syncopation to the Mahler playing in the background, Teddy studies his face, and the ashes of violent history fall all around him in a beautiful ballet of hopeless destruction.  The repetition of the officer’s hand reaching for the gun then pulling back, reaching for the gun then pulling back, and the ashes falling in their balletic display and landing in the pools of blood on the floor make the scene not only surreal but also seem like an endless repetition.  This moment in history will play over and over again. This is Scorcese’s way of putting his stamp on the material. He takes a single small scene in the book and turns it into an ominous portent of the repetition of the insanity of everything.

In another scene in the book, Teddy briefly recalls a dream he had of his wife Dolores who died in a fire. He remembers seeing that her back turned to ash. Again, Scorcese takes this single image – the back turned to ash –, and he expands it into operatic brilliance. When Teddy has the dream in the movie, the colors are brilliantly real. So real they hurt. The scene is slowed down as if being sifted through a layer of psychedelic narcotics. Dolores’s every word seeps through her mouth like flowers dipped in sugar. Teddy reaches out to hold her, and she turns to ash and crumbles. He is left holding air in a room full of flames, as the ceiling leaks water all around him.

The leaking is critical to understanding how this film functions. It opens with Teddy on a boat surrounded by water, the sight of which makes him violently ill. He works his way through the ship’s hold where chains and shackles dangle from the ceiling while waves crash against the ship’s hull. From that moment on, water is leaking everywhere in this movie. It leaks into Teddy’s dreams of his dead wife Dolores. It batters the asylum in a hurricane. It crashes against the island’s rocky shore. Even glasses of water become portents of poison. And as the movie progresses, we have to question whether Teddy’s sanity itself is leaking as he recalls (or has planted inside is brain) the memory of a lake and the dripping, leaking, tragic murder that took place there.

But what is it, actually, that is leaking in Shutter Island? I would have to say that seeping is the more appropriate word for what is happening in this movie. Insanity is seeping into everything, into every action, interaction, scene and symbol. Scorcese relies on his veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker to execute perfectly orchestrated chops, cuts and sequences.  As the movie leaks, drips, and explodes in hurricane proportions, it never once falters. Even though water is leaking everywhere, the movie is tight as a drum, so tight that it gets its claustrophobic hold on us with the first notes of music that open the film and it never lets go. Filmed in an actual abandoned mental institution, the production design exploits its environment to maximum potential. Color, framing, composition, and sound are so precisely calibrated that each scene hits us like shots of a cinematic gun.

Schoonmaker’s masterful editing works in perfect syncopation with the amazing soundtrack produced by Scorcese longtime collaborator Robbie Robertson (of The Band). Using music from Nam June Paik, John Cage, Brian Eno, and modern composers such as Torleif Thedeen & Entcho Radoukanov, combined with the croons of Johnny Ray and Dinah Washington, the music has the same audio effect as the visuals of the island. The music leads us through corridors and chambers of madness, hints at claustrophobic doom, gives us momentary reprieve in dreams, and then disintegrates into more insanity. Including work by John Cage/Nam June Paik is definitely a nod to Dada, its antiwar politics and its recognition of the inherent madness of systems and institutions.

Indeed the institution of Shutter Island is mad. As Teddy finds himself caught in the labyrinth of deceit, lies, and confusion, Leonardo DiCaprio does an amazing job of showing the conflict and tension between what he believes, what the institution would like him to believe, and the questioning of his own sanity. As we see his character mirrored, fragmented and reflected in a myriad of paranoid interactions, we have to question how much of what Teddy believes is real, how much was “planted” by the institution (think The Manchurian Candidate), and how much is just madness that knows no bounds. From the insane glint in Ben Kingsley’s eyes, to the amused nods of Max Von Sydow’s Laehring, to the sideways glances of nurses, orderlies, and patients, to the first Rachel Solando’s mournful embrace, to the desperate pleas of the brutally beaten George Noyce, to the gleefully fascistic Warden, and finally to the all too eager to sympathize Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), every character in the movie seems to be a reflection of Teddy but also a conspirator against him.

As the movie plows through its Kafkaesque nightmare of doubt, paranoia, and claustrophobia, Teddy becomes more and more focused on a singular goal – to reach the lighthouse. Cited at various points in the movie as a sewage treatment facility, a site for torture and inhumane brain surgery and experiments, and as evidence of a government conspiracy, Teddy is desperate to make it to the lighthouse to shed light on the truth. As we watch him run through corridors, scramble up rocks, and (in a scene that recalls Hitchcock) wind his way up the spiral staircase, we can’t help but question whether Teddy is literally traversing the landscape of the island or whether we are following him through the corridors of his own madness.

When Teddy finally does reach the lighthouse and is given what seems to be “the answer” to the impossible mystery he was charged to solve, Scorcese throws one hell of a plot twist at us that can either shed light on Teddy’s paranoid conspiracies or shut out any hope for light in the future. Teddy is told that he is not Teddy at all but the very monster who haunts his nightmares. In the ambiguous final scenes we are forced either to side with the institution or with Teddy, to believe that the lighthouse does shed light on the truth or to accept that the lighthouse is a tower of lies. Many critics cite the ending as confusing and problematic. In fact, many critics cite the movie as confusing and problematic, but what they fail to see is that the movie is about the whole system being confusing and problematic. It is about the whole history of the insanity of everything, and insanity doesn’t provide tidy answers. The ending is ambiguous and confusing because we can’t make sense of an insane world. The whole point of the movie is to make us complicit in the paranoia, to make us experience and feel it, to doubt everything we see and everything that is said. If the movie gave us easy answers, then that would mean that the insane world is full of easy answers. Scorcese doesn’t allow for such pat and tidy solutions.

On a final note – you may want to stop here if you haven’t seen the movie yet–, I decided I needed to watch the movie a second time to understand more how it works structurally. I can say that this is a movie that definitely deserves a second viewing. Rather than making things clearer, knowing the outcome of the movie only made things much more complex and grounded in suspicion and paranoia. From the moment I saw Chuck, I suspected him as a conspirator. Every single glance and word had double meanings. I found myself in a constant state of flux between believing Teddy and believing the institution. This state of flux is Scorcese’s intentional manipulation of the audience.  On a broad scale, we are being asked to question how much we accept what we are given by institutions as truth and how much we question what systems manufacture as lies.  Ultimately, because of the way the movie packages and frames the institution, we can’t help but see the institution as the real source of the nightmare. But infusing that knowledge with doubt is what makes the film so interesting to watch. I can that when I finally got through the mind-bending twists and turns of my second viewing  and reached the final scene, I realized that the answer is not to be found in the lighthouse, but in the final words that are uttered in the movie. Teddy says to Chuck (Dr. Sheehan), “This whole situation has made me think of this question. Is it better to die as a good man or to live as a monster?” Chuck’s eyes take him inside himself for a moment, and the very final word he says and that is uttered in the film is, “Teddy?” Hearing that one word at the end of my second viewing confirmed my suspicions. It is not Teddy but the institution and the men who create it who are insane. But we all know that already.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at:



Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at