Spoiler-ful comments on “Shutter Island”

As described in my last post, “Moon” and “Shutter Island” are two excellent movies that have a surprising number of things in common. If you haven’t seen both films by now, go and do so immediately. You can read my dual review before or after you see the movies, but you should read the rest of this post only after you see them, because this is going to be full of spoilers, especially about “Shutter Island.”

You have been warned.

OK, those of you who are still here may recall that my review contained the line, “In both movies, the protagonists have high-stakes confrontations with themselves, and with the powers that be.” In many films, confronting yourself is a metaphor. But these two stories mean it literally.

“Shutter Island” presents the consequences of this confrontation with more dramatic impact. When the film begins, we and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) believe that he as been sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from its asylum for the criminally insane. He also secretly plans to find and confront another inmate, the man who killed Teddy’s wife.

But at the film’s climax, we learn that Teddy himself is the man who killed his wife. He did it for understandable reasons, as his wife had gone mad and killed their children, but the experience left him with such horrific memories that he retreated into a delusional world where he was the killer’s hunter and not the actual killer.

In an elaborate role-play therapy, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) allows Teddy the run of the island so that he can look into every nook and cranny until the realization that the imaginary killer is not there becomes inescapable. Dr. Cawley hopes this realization will help bring Teddy back to reality. If the plan fails, Dr. Cawley’s old-fashioned colleague Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) will lobotomize Teddy, an outcome the more progressive Dr. Cawley ardently wishes to avoid.

I read Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” several years ago, and I recently got my hands on a new copy long enough to re-read the last chapter and a half. Just as in the film, Dr. Cawley succeeds in bringing Teddy out of his delusion in the penultimate chapter. But also as in the film, Teddy appears to have a relapse soon afterward, and the last thing we see is Dr. Naehring and his orderlies approaching with a shiny set of lobotomy tools wrapped in a white towel.

Alas, poor Teddy!

But the movie goes one step further than the book, adding a single line of dialogue that changes everything. Just before he is led away, Teddy turns to a third doctor whom he knows as Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo) and asks, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”

In other words, Dr. Cawley’s plan has not failed after all. But having been “cured,” Teddy does not want to live with the knowledge of what he has done, and freely chooses to have himself lobotomized by pretending to remain delusional. His rhetorical question is a wink on the way to the gallows.

Chuck, the only one to hear it, is left stunned and speechless. He thinks he knows what Teddy is up to, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. (And whether knowing the truth would make any difference to Dr. Naehring is an open question. He could argue that the lobotomy is justified by necessity on one hand, or consent on the other.)

Teddy’s choice is both magnificent and horrifying.

The film’s writing credits are shared by Lehane and Laeta Kalogridis. Whichever of them came up with that closing line should get a medal.

“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”

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