'Shutter Island': Scorsese's Lament

Joe Biden appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows last week to defend the Obama administration from Dick Cheney’s disgraceful attacks, which appear to suggest his earlier bloodlust has not yet been satisfied, despite everything his time in the White House accomplished. The current Vice-President had the opportunity to set out a genuine alternative to the war-first, don’t-even-ask-the-questions-later policies that Cheney had pursued; but regrettably did not. Instead, he actually seemed to play a game of ‘who has killed the most terrorists?’, citing the current ‘success rates’ against the Taliban. When Joe Biden is pressured to define success on the basis of how many human lives have been taken in a conflict in which open diplomacy has hardly been attempted, never mind exhausted, it’s time to lament.

Lamentation isn’t popular these days – we have large-scale memorials before the smoke from violent atrocities has blown away, funerals are called ‘celebrations’, and even the losers get a nice certificate when someone else wins an Oscar. We don’t do lament. So we have Martin Scorsese, former seminarian, cataloguer of the broken male psyche, and kinetic film-maker to thank for releasing his new film ‘Shutter Island’ at the beginning of the historic Christian season of Lent.

‘Shutter Island’, in which federal marshals investigate the disappearance of a patient from a secure institution on a windswept Massachusetts island in 1954, turns out to be a metaphor for what happens when an individual (or a country, or an era) becomes detached from the consequences of their actions; pretending to face trauma by burying it, and in that sense, it’s the ideal unofficial sequel to Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’, a film that suggested enjoying really violent entertainment the reason we are willing to entertain real violence. ‘Shutter Island’ risks telling an unpalatable truth: that war is not clean, that the line between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘enemy’ is ambiguous, that the post-Second World War era shattered community bonds, and allowed hidden personal brokenness to reach epidemic proportions. So far, so depressing, but theologically this feels like a Psalm lamenting human selfishness and misdirection; cinematically Scorsese has constructed a vastly compelling ‘B’ movie fan letter, filled with entertaining performances (Leonardo di Caprio as the marshal Ted, Ben Kingsley as the institution’s director, and especially Michelle Williams as a kind of ghostly voice of conscience), extraordinary use of music, beautifully framed images, and ultimately a serious commitment to telling a story that, while set in a specific, disturbing location, is so universal that it could have profound meaning for anyone who approaches.

Why make this film? The answer comes over the end credits, as Dinah Washington sings a song that could have been taken from the deleted scenes in an ancient Hebrew text:

‘This bitter earth Well, what fruit it bears. What good is love That no one shares.’

The song makes sense in the case of the main character in ‘Shutter Island’, but its use here is about more than Ted’s personal loss: it’s being played over the end credits to bring a lament about our culture to its minor-key crescendo. Who is responsible for our nation’s sins? You? Me? 'Them'? How can we live with ourselves when the inaction or action of those we have elected leads to the pointless deaths of hundreds of thousands on another continent? ‘Shutter Island’ asks us to face ourselves, and not hide; and to recognize that accepting responsibility – that we are capable of being the ‘bad guys’ – we do not have to shred our own dignity. If the line between good and evil runs through each person, and not between groups of people, then even after we have faced our shared culpability in structural evil, we may see that there is good in us too. The film doesn’t present a solution, or at least not a palatable one; although it does suggest that merely making a decision to take one step out of the darkness is better than nothing. But the purpose of ‘Shutter Island’ is not to give us answers: it is to lament, which means that embedded within it is both a warning of what we can be when we lose sight of our interdependence as human beings, and, let us hope, a reminder that the purpose of lament is to prepare us for a new start.