Discuss Unreliability In Shutter Island

1624 words (6 pages) Essay in Film Studies

04/05/17 Film Studies Reference this

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Films more often than enough can demonstrate signs of unreliability and the majority of the time it is the narrator who is the cause of the film’s dubiousness. The dictionary definition of an unreliable narrator asserts that they demonstrate qualities and tendencies that denote an absence of reliability or perception of the narrative. “Whether due to age, mental disability or personal involvement, an unreliable narrator provides the reader with either incomplete or inaccurate information as a result of these conditions.” [1] As Wayne Booth once stated: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work, (which is to say, the implied authors norms) unreliable when he does not” [2] . We are consumers of narratives which has given us the ability to identify unreliable stories. However as “theoreticians, we are less well able to say what constitutes unreliability and how it is detected”. [3] Shutter Island is a film adapted, from a novel, by Martin Scorsese; the film is within the film noir genre, with an unreliable narrator that, as result, plays with your mind and makes the film appear to be very ambiguous. Shutter Island is clearly shown through the perspective of a fallacious narrator.

A narrator’s job is to reveal what is real in the narrative and, comparable to tellers in reality, the narrator may have it incorrect or would rather disclose what they deem to be true. “On this model we perceive narrative unreliability when we perceive a disparity between the intentions of the implied author concerning what is true in the story and the intentions of the narrator concerning what she would have the reader believe.” [4] Shutter Islands’ narrative follows this idea as throughout the film, the central characters perspective gradually becomes more and more inconsistent. The narrator successfully distorts the lines between fantasy and reality which as a result makes the audience struggle to distinguish between the two. It is not until half way through the film where we are initially required to consider the option that the protagonist himself is the one who is in fact mad. It is, to a certain extent, evident from the beginning that something is not right or clear. Scorsese suggests that the narrator is unreliable “without explicitly revealing where the perspective diverges from an objective view of events” [5] ; thus, we can, on no occasion, really believe what we are being shown. In many films it is possible to distinguish between “dream sequences, flashbacks and concrete reality.” [6] Shutter Island has all of these components however it is hard to distinguish which section is which.

The unreliability of the narrator in Shutter Island is hard to decipher as the narrator does not really give us a motive to suspect Teddy. The uncertain characteristics of the island and of the establishment are reinforced with the blustery weather, but also visually with repeated long shots. These shots emphasize the remoteness and eeriness of the area as well as the uncanny diegetic and non-diegetic choice of symphony music. “Furthermore, figures like Dr Cawlez (Ben Kingsley), Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) or the warden (Ted Levine), not to mention the patients themselves, make it even easier to align oneself with Teddy’s judgment that what is happening on Shutter Island is uncanny.” [7] It is as the film develops that Teddy’s illusions turn out to be more powerful and make his reliability dither. For example, during his discussions with Noyce in the prison, Dolores interferes as a hallucination and enhances the unsettling of Teddy.

What’s more, Richard Dyer and Douglas Pye are two theorists who indicate with respect to film noir “the way in which dream, flashback and voice-over structure cast into doubt the status-as-truth of the eventers presented” [8] . In Shutter Island, Teddy repeatedly has memories and recollections of Dachau, which he recounts to Dr Naehring. These flashbacks however also blend with his dreams and as result become more detached from the proceedings happening in real life. This is an exemplar for the cooperation amongst the narrator’s partiality, recollection and trustworthiness, which we reexamine after the recognition of Teddy’s psychological condition. This unreliability persists all throughout the film and even at the end we are still unclear as to what is real.

Furthermore, Shutter Island is made within the film noir genre. A key characteristic in film noir is that there will permanently be some form of a mystery. Shutter Island would be considered a neo-noir film due to the fact that it does “relate or draw upon the notion, the image and the putative conventions of film noir, and, directly or indirectly, on some of the film featuring centrally within most version of the basic noir canon”. [9] It has been affirmed that an element of the film noir genre is that the characters the story is centered on are “mentally and emotionally vulnerable” [10] and occasionally they are, or envision themselves, to be physically helpless too. Leonardo Di Caprio is the protagonist in Shutter Island; he has been through a distressing incident where his wife and children have died. He is plagued by images of his dead family and haunted by the fact he was unable to stop it; as a result, he is on a mission to find and murder his wife’s murder. However, he is hampered by himself through his mental condition of suppression and deterioration which is the primary narrative impediment for the audience. A quote by Leonardo from the film Memento that sums this idea up: “Memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts”. [11] 

As a final point, when watching a film, we need to be conscious that nonentity may appear as it seems and that even the camera may be lying to us. Seymour Chatman once asserted that “visuals are no more sacrosanct than words and that the camera can even conspire with an unreliable narrator” [12] . In the genre film noir, this method of narrative disruption is very common, for example in the movie The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles), the camera’s focal point is on the main character who is correspondingly the unreliable narrator, which is confessed by mistake in the introductory narrative. In Shutter Island red herrings can be discovered, however they are quite simply disregarded, which operates to subvert the narrative. Shutter Island supports this idea of not being able to trust the camera: one example is seen when Teddy fires his gun at Cawley where his blood is dashed all over the white board. However, shortly after the image we are presented with a shot that makes it appear as if nothing has occurred, that the gun is fake and the Cawley is still positioned in the same place and very much alive. It is clear in this sequence that the “narrative discourse here is built for shock effect” [13] ; however it also clearly demonstrates to the audience that Teddy and the camera are scheming with each other and that the camera is in actual fact Teddy’s coconspirator.

In conclusion, it can be debated that Shutter Island’s story occurs on six distinct planes which are “the actual reality, the narrated reality, the perceived reality, the flashbacks, the dreams and finally the hallucinations” [14] . It is difficult to differentiate each one throughout the film due to the fact that they all blend together which is what makes it confusing and difficult for the audience to extricate reality and the truth from the rest. As a result, the audience, between the unreliable narrator and the unreliable camera work, are left with unclear knowledge of what is really happening. Shutter Island strongly follows the film noir genre characteristics by leaving the revelation of what is real until the end, however, Shutter Island is slightly different to many common film noir films due to the fact that even the ending is slightly unclear, while it is generally supposed that the film will end with “Teddys lobotomy as he is taken away by the orderlies in the final image of the film” [15] . Due to the fact that even the ending is ambiguous, it is clear that Shutter Island has a very unreliable narrator which makes it difficult for the viewer to distinguish reality from the rest.

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