A Freudian, anti-Cartesian, look at Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’

Spoiler Warning

How does one know one exists, Descartes, and is not in a dream? Through thinking. But Teddy Daniels is thinking. To analyse the subject of philosophy therefore, we must begin beyond the ego. It is not that we think, therefore we know we are – for this gives primacy to subjectivity based alone on ego, or consciousness. Rather, Freud’s theory of the unconscious subverted Descartes’ primacy of the ego; to say that there is thinking happening, that is not readily available to the consciousness, or put differently, one is not always conscious of everything they are thinking.

Though this is not all that the unconscious is. It is not simply that unconsciousness is the thinking that we do not know about, and has been that way since the begininng. It is that the unconscious is radically seperated from consciousness. This, in practical terms, is necessary, for if we were thinking everything at the level of the consciosness we’d remember nothing, we spend forever trying to open doors, we’d be reading every word on a page then trying to work that word out; we keep a lot locked in at the level of the unconscious so as not to constantly forget. The unconscious is the place where we keep things we do automatically.

But furthermore, more dramatically, it is the product of repression. We place things at the level of the unconscious as a way of repressing things that become too much for us, that are traumatic. For Teddy Daniels (played by Leornardo DiCaprio) the repression is due to his kids being killed by his wife, and then him killing his wife – who he has it, in his mind, as having died in a fire. This repression goes so far, so much so that too much reality has been put at the level of the unconscious, and he creates a fantasy world, where he is a US Marshal.

The audience, at the end of the film accepts this, perhaps may well have seen this twist coming from a mile away, but the question remians: what if we are duped ourselves, what if the doctors on shutter island (the characters of Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow and the others) are just telling Daniels that he is mentally unstable? Luckily Scorsese has this one covered, and can only be truly recognised in knowledge of his directorial skills.

How do we know when we are in the Matrix, film buffs? There are glitches, 2 cats walk by. The same theory must be applied to recognise when we are in the real on shutter island. There are continuity glitches (this mastery has obviously confused people with “filmmaking experience”). The scene on the boat towards the island, with Daniels and the man he thinks is his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), on their way to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, there are a number of moments of seemingly erroneous continuity – but, of course, my contention is these stand for the glitches in Daniels’ grasping of reality, and this in turn demonstrates why it is in fact true that Daniels is a patient at Ashecliff Hospital – without this continuity trick, we too would find it hard to decipher reality.

What is more, the glitch in the Matrix, the breaks in continuity, these remind us that there are ways of knowing whether one is in a dream or not – to rebut the Cartesian premise – but, sometimes terrifyingly, the work of the unconscious is vast, and not subject to the same laws of knowing.

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3 Responses to A Freudian, anti-Cartesian, look at Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’

  1. Colleen says:

    Thanks for referencing my blog, even if it was to point out I’m wrong 😉

    I wrote that blog post a day after seeing “Shutter Island,” and the more comments I got (on another site, Open Salon), the more I realized that my other suspicion may just be true – that all the “mistakes” were there on purpose, as you said, to distinguish the reality from the fantasy, if you will. I am open to seeing “Shutter Island” again, and I may change my mind on the continuity, who knows. But upon first viewing – to me – it just looked sloppy.

    • oh I didn’t mean to come across as saying one thing is right or wrong, and anyway there is no right or wrong until we unpick what Scorsese had on his mind, and, I don’t know about you, unfortunately I’m in no place to do that.

      I think I will definitely be going to see it again, plus the film critic Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:

      You may read reviews of “Shutter Island” complaining that the ending blindsides you. The uncertainty it causes prevents the film from feeling perfect on first viewing. I have a feeling it might improve on second.

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