3 Stars – Thought Provoking
Martin Scorsese’s direction of Denis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” is a haunting experience where we live the subtle differences between reality and fantasy. Set in the 1950’s at a mental institution on an island off the coast of New York, two FBI Agents, led by Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), are sent to determine why a mental patient has disappeared into thin air.
The Shutter Island mental institution is a human warehouse of the worst kinds of criminals ranging from mass murderers to psychopaths of every persuasion. Each face tells a story, each story becomes more bizarre.
Agent Daniels is joined in this elaborate and intriguing expose of the hidden secrets of Shutter Island by Agent Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). The biggest secret seems to be a conspiracy between Shutter Island’s Director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and his Chief Medical Doctor, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). Agent Daniels remembers Dr. Naehring from his days in the army when his unit was one of the first to arrive at the Nazi death camps at the end of World War II. Even more unnerving is the fact that most of the guards as well as the patients seem to be conspirators as well, either too afraid to talk or actually supporting Dr. Naehring’s work.
Agents Daniels and Aule are thrust into a mind game with the patients in an attempt to uncover the mysteries of the island. Both have a growing concern that a secret hospital for experimenting on the patients exists somewhere hidden within the facility. As a counter balance to this investigation, Drs. Cawley and Naehring use a variety of elaborate mind games to try to convince Agent Daniels that he is himself mentally unstable.
The mind is a remarkable filtering system that keeps us from repeatedly experiencing pain. Selective memories are blocked as a protection from pain, while at the same time specific fears can keep us from danger. Mental illness can become manifest when our mind remembers too much from the past or exaggerates the dangers of the present.
What builds our sanity is the ability to be responsible for our own actions. This is greatly enhanced by the company we keep, especially if that company is systematically focused on compassion, trust, patience, and love. The building blocks of a healthy society that allow us to transcend the fears that invade a person’s mind in times of trouble are most often found in a loving family or a community of faith.
We won’t spoil the intriguing conclusion to “Shutter Island”, but this well-told story is a fascinating look at mental illness and the impacts it can have on others. Our medical interventions may have advanced since 1954 when the story of “Shutter Island” takes place, but balancing our concerns for societal protection with that of healing the patient are unchanged. While some forms of mental illnesses may be medically treated, this story raises the very real concern about how you show the most compassion possible for those who, because of their deeds in society, may be the least worthy.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When we take those who are mentally unstable and place them within an institution, this often increases the instability. But the movement decades ago to deinstitutionalize such individuals caused many to end up homeless and living on the street. What do you see as a possible solution?
2. Because of the value of every human being, it is illegal to experiment on a person. But some individuals ignore this and set up “death camps” in which to do this. What do you think causes a person to do that?
3. Have you or someone you love ever struggled with mental instability? How did you or they find help?