"Shutter Island" and the Radical Viewer


1954, a paranoid moment– US doctors have lobotomized 18,000 people with no end in sight, top CIA officials purchase ten kilos of LSD from Sandoz Labs, the House of Un-American Activities is ramping up the Red Scare, the Cold War is launching into a protracted period of crisis and escalation.  Enter Teddy Daniels, a working class detective, ex WWII soldier who was present for the liberation of Dachau and the exposure of its horrors.  He is now approaching yet another nightmare zone, Ashecliff Hospital, a  mental institution/penal colony for the criminally insane where the benign gardens and open air treatment mask an insidious world of physical and psychological torture.  We’re not certain, but all the signs point to Ashecliff as a gothic no man’s land where non-compliant patients are disappeared and converted into drugged or lobotomized zombies– soldier-fodder for history’s insatiable maw of militarism and violence.  Fortunately, our detective exhibits an acute critical capacity and intuition, he will not be put off the scent by the Warden Dr. Cawley’s transparent front as humane doctor, he knows that the experiments at Shutter Island are anything but benign and compassionate.  Crawley says of his experimental methods, “Valuable things have a way of being misunderstood,” and we, with Teddy, shudder at the sinister implications.

So here we are again, on the metonymical island, trapped with savage children who have come to worship the bloodthirsty Lord of the Flies.  It is clear that the soldier who arrives from the outside to save us from the horror is a symbol of a wider, more encompassing violence and cruelty, but at least order will be restored and the immediate chaos and abuse may end.  The metonymical island is a contained space, a place where the workings of the totalitarian system can be seen in miniature, where we can achieve an aerial view of the unfathomable nexus that interconnects and protects mechanisms of power and control.  Shutter Island, relentlessly dark as it is, provides a kind of solace to the radical viewer.  It confirms what we know about history, that it is a ruthless telos of violence and coercion.  The violence of Dachau is analogous to the violence of the American Cold War and Red Scare, and this will be perpetuated in every institution until the whole system is brought down by us and our comrades.  Despite the clever veil of lies, Detective Daniels, with us, believes it when he is told by a socialist youth that he was the subject of experiments with psychotropic drugs.  What followed was a CIA and Federal Government conspiracy involving electrotherapy, psychological torture, unspeakable acts and devices at Shutter Island’s “lighthouse,” a chamber harboring all the menace of Abu Ghraib or Dachau.  Of course we notice the inconsistencies in Daniels’ story–Dr. Cawley, the seemingly compassionate Warden, genuinely seems benign, even when nobody is looking.  We see that our intuitive detective often ignores and represses that sharp intuition—the soothing broad A’d voice of his dead dream wife conveys useful clues, but he can’t take in anything that would require him to let her go.   Yes, there is evidence that Daniels’ logic is flawed.  But like him, we cannot let ourselves be distracted by these doubts, it is only we who can bring to light the full extent of the historical narrative that some of his evidence points to.

But Scorsese must be getting soft, blinkered by a narrowing scope of vision, a symptom of late middle age.   Scorsese (or the novel he chose) betrays the historical scope Shutter Island initially promised.  Detective Daniels is irrefutably delusional, even we can’t deny it.  Shutter Island is not about the tyranny of a violent penal institution, nor about the nightmare of a history of alienated social relations soaked in violence.  This is a personal tragedy– Detective Daniels dreamed up the whole conspiracy to mask the pain and guilt he cannot face– his psychotic wife killed his children, and he, filled with empathy and revulsion, killed her.  The Warden, staff and patients participated in an elaborate game to humor his delusions in order to help him come to terms with this horrible truth.   Yanked out of our spectacular nightmare, we come face to face with a nondescript bewildered Warden who finally must give up a long low-level struggle, and we must also face a film that has vastly constricted its field of vision.  We are defeated, our acute perception is no better than that of the detective, all we can manage is a weak shaking of the fist.  Oh former seventies counterculture cinema, you bad faith dinosaur you.

And yet, another turn of the screw and this IS a political story.  The real drama that is being staged is a war of policy; will psychotic patients be given drugs, electrotherapy, surgical procedures or will they be treated humanely, experimentally?   In flashes behind the telos of the conspiracy plot we glimpse this project, an experiment without sinister intentions, an experiment in the sense of trying something outlandish and jerry rigged, that probably won’t work.  The history of relentless violence that we have been witnessing in its proper generic form, the paranoid thriller, is also a history of gaps and lags, the farce, where minor experiments are tried and forgotten and remembered and tried again. From Acid Dreams, a history of LSD:

The drug that connected so many of us to the organic mystery of a vastly alive universe turns out to have been, at least in the beginning, a secret CIA project to find a truth serum. It’s frightening to think that CIA spooks have used LSD with electroshock and torture to get information out of prisoners. It’s even more frightening that they have used it themselves to little positive effect. Or perhaps not. It’s ironic and still scary to think that the CIA tried to control the LSD experiment even though hundreds of thousands were turning on in the heyday of the sixties. Neither the ironies nor the chilling implications stop here. The authors have plowed through thousands of pages of declassified intelligence material to reveal a complex tissue of connections between secret government agencies and the academic world on the one hand, and between the Utopian hopes of a generation and the machinations of those same agencies on the other. It’s a riveting story that makes the most paranoid and outlandish theories of the sixties seem insufficiently paranoid. 1/

Acid, then, was both a secret CIA road to ruin and a counterculture path to illumination, a conspiracy within a conspiracy, the material sign of the times, psychedelic disorientation and dynamism, an endless regress of distortions and revisionings.  LSD, like the dangerous game that Daniels and Cawley both play, is an experiment in every sense: it is at once insidious, playful, profound, creative, horrific.   Ashecliff, too, represents this polymorphous experiment.  It is the playing field for a game where doctors set up an elaborate fantasy out of a deep conviction that compassionate treatment should prevail.  It is also a war of position where the fate of the treatment of mental illness is in the balance.  Daniels’ unremitting dystopianism actually ends up swinging the pendulum the wrong way.  And yet, we are still convinced this is a liberal, reformist film.  The radical version of Shutter Island, our version, was the apocalyptic historical narrative–  the relentless critical force that takes down all reformist apologists in its path.  But was this—our– Shutter Island’s historical narrative discarded?  Have we found the one truth of the film in Daniels’ personal tragedy that proves the larger dystopic narrative wrong?  In fact, the film upholds both readings.  The historical narrative, the dark conspiracy of violence that the fantasy narrative advances, has a pristine internal logic, and aptly ties together Daniels’ personal traumas (His experiences in Dachau, the presence of threatened surgical and pharmaceutical violence) with larger historical narratives of domination.   However, the unveiling of Daniels’ individual psychosis, his repression of his dead family and the fact that he is faithful to his psychotic vision rather than participating in Cowley’s experiment, allows the film a kind of flexibility, an ability to navigate the possibility/impossibility of leaving a violent history behind.

Adorno, in a discussion of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, criticizes the unrelenting disenchantment of the novel  as a frozen dialectic.  Huxley submits to moral indignation through unmitigated excoriation of all possible forms of desublimated sexuality.  Huxley polarizes humanity and reification, unable to realize that:

humanity includes reification as well as its opposite, not merely as the condition from which liberation is possible but also positively, as the form in which , however brittle and inadequate it may be, subjective impulses are realized but only by being objectified. 2/

This hypostasized logic, the inability to gauge the tension and frisson between subjectivity and objectivity, reveals an inability to grasp the totality, or a moral revulsion in the face of its objective contradictions and uncertainties.

Apocalypticism is all well and good– I’m a fan myself– but for the radical viewer, the tension lies in the ability to register wisps of hope and potential through the flames of our apocalyptic desires.  The briefly lit match, a motif throughout the film, reveals glimpses of utopic impulse, a zany and failing experiment, hopelessly under-equipped and yet feisty in its attempt to combat the Goliath of masculinity, history, personal violence.  The radical viewer can’t be blamed for missing these glimpses, she is overcome by the thriller narrative’s spectacular apocalypticism, not to mention the fully hypostasized gorgeousness of the elemental, saturated dream sequences in which a flawed, dead wife is made perfect and whole.  In contrast, the doctors’ plot is anti-spectacular, bureaucratic and amateur.  The fantasy they erect– when seen outside of Daniels’ charged vision– is somewhat goofy and jerry rigged.  The role playing is mediocre at best– a nurse tries not to laugh or sigh as she is roughly interrogated by the “detective,” an eager to please patient gives herself melodramatically to Daniels’ fantasy, a fake missing woman plays out a competent high school actress’s version of the mad woman in the attic.  Cawley’s experiment is intuitive, qualitative, and cannot measure up to the great quantitative realism of pharmaceutical and surgical methods.  How can this amateur play compete with statistical studies?  How can this unspectacular experiment compare with the alternately lush and dark roiling fantasies available so readily to the central player?

And yet, hopeless as it is, the patient doctors play out their experiment to the end.   This unrealistic dedication to the possible can be seen as dialectical, for even if the future will not be perfected, it could be:

Finally there is the possibilist tendency.  Stripped of any derogatory connotation, this term (the possibilist) covers all those who viewed or view the “realm of possibilities” as still open.  They are proponents of the potential rather than the real.  They go so far as to proclaim the primacy of imagination over reason.  They explore the realm of possibility and want to achieve some of these possibilities.  Some of them want to achieve everything 3/

Yet, unrealistic and unsuccessful as the experiment is for Daniels or for the course of history, it does have some impact on the viewer.  It breaks up the spectacular conspiracy plot, denaturalizes the reign of terror.  Brecht, of epic theater:

When something seems the most obvious thing in the world, it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. 4/

The film leaves us with truly difficult, interesting questions.   Is Daniels right to remain in his fantasy life when his “real” life is so bleak?  Does his murder of his wife really make him a criminal, didn’t she ask to be set free from her psychotic reality, and in fact, like Oedipus, weren’t all of his transgressive acts beyond his control? At what point does the weight of a history of violence on a person or culture become too heavy to be reversed?  Can institutions with a long and horrific history of terror and repression, such as mental institutions or penal colonies, ever take part in utopic experiments?  Can a film that finds truth in the individual, rather than the political register, be radical?  This ending, not “the most obvious thing in the world” by a long shot, provides evidence for Crawley’s assertion “valuable things have a way of being misunderstood.”

JOHANNA ISAACSON is a PhD candidate in Literature at UCSC. She can be reached at: johan_is@yahoo.com.


1/ Lee, Martin and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: the CIA, LSD, and the Sixties Rebellion New York: Grove Press 1985, p. 3

2/ Adorno, Theodor “Aldous Huxley and Utopia” Prisms Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 1981. 106

3/ Lefebvre, Henri The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution New York, Monthly Review Press, 1969. 57

4/ Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic. London: Methuen. 1964


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