Saturday, March 20, 2010

Failed Psychotherapy in Shutter Island

Warning: contains spoilers!

Although Shutter Island (2010) was perhaps no more than your average Hollywood thriller, I thought it had some enjoyable, artistically playful moments that contributed to the overall dramatic intention of the film in an interesting way. These moments underlie the ending of the film, which is one I think Felix Guattari would have liked. The scenes I am interested in mainly exist in the form of inexplicable dream sequences, which crop up throughout the film - several images from these sequences can be found here, apologies for not finding my own images as the film isn't out yet! Often, they are indistinguishable from the diagetic reality - an extreme example occurs when 'The Marshall' meets the woman he was supposed to be hunting down, who claims she was a doctor on the island. It is likely that this scene never 'really' happened. And more often these dreams provide an example of what Daniel Frampton might call 'film-thinking' through fantastic scenes/images that do not immediately fit with the linear narrative of the film, but instead start to think their own relations to various elements of the film.

The Marshall's dreams increasingly permeate the film, leading the spectator to conclude his insanity in the crash between delusions and reality. Ultimately, this is also a question posed to The Marshall as well: Are you insane, or not? His caretakers admit that they've been letting, even facilitating, these delusions in an attempt to redirect his violent tendencies. In inhabiting his mind throughout the film, the spectator experiences what The Marshall experiences - in other words, we know exactly the effects of this perpetuation. We are able to experience his experience so exactly, because a single narrative has been imposed upon him through the use of drugs and role play - his 'world' has been chosen for him, and although he may be predisposed to inhabit this mode of Being, his therapists have given him no alternatives. Ultimately, when given an ultimatum, either choose death or return to reality, he chooses to die - stating something along the lines of, "better to die a hero than be insane."

He sees his only options as choosing between death and insanity, and why should he not? He has been kept in a constant state of paranoia throughout the film, where the only fluctuation of his identity has been between two poles: US Marshall and inhabitant of the asylum. For Guattari, this would have been a travesty. At La Borde, Guattari devised a system where patients would take part in the running of the clinic itself. Thus, they would be given different 'roles' to inhabit for a set period of time: for this month, patient A will be our cook, patient B will be our gardener, etc. The goal here was to involve the patients in different discourses/worlds where they might make diverse and positive connections, allowing them to see different ways of Being rather than labeling them 'insane' a priori. Had The Marshall been given the choice, who would he have become? Had his therapists prompted other becomings, other ways of existing, might he have given up on his delusions entirely? We can't say, because the therapists forced his delusions upon him for the sake of pacification. Guattari would have liked the film not for its ending, but for the fact that it reveals the problems with forceful psychotherapy where the patient only exists to be 'cured' - or, perhaps more appropriately: disciplined.


  1. Guattari and La Borde sound interesting. Could you recommend any books or articles about it? Joe and I tried to think of other movies where the hero turned out to be insane. Do you know of any? "King of Hearts", an old French movie, which may be horribly dated by now, somewhat fits the bill.

  2. Forgot about google for a second there...

  3. Ahh, nice list! Check out 'Felix Guattari: A Critical Introduction' by Gary Genosko. It gives a good history of La Borde and Guattari's involvement there, and as an extra bonus it has a chapter on film that is worth reading.