“Shutter Island”: The Insanity Detector

[Warning: Here there be spoilers.]

Today at Slacktivist, Fred Clark has a new post involving Gnosticism, lies, and conspiracies.

Just recently I watched the movies “JFK” and “Shutter Island” back to back. The movie “JFK” ends with the audience concluding that there is no… possible… way Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone; ergo, there had to have been a conspiracy to kill JFK. The movie “Shutter Island” ends with Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) discovering that he is actually Andrew Laeddis, the 67th patient on Shutter Island, and that his primary psychologist has devised a massive role-playing experiment in the hopes of bringing him back to sanity. There is no Nazi conspiracy – baby.

Fred writes, “All conspiracy theories and all Gnostic forms of mystery religion work a bit like Amway or any other multi-level marketing scheme — the more people I am able to recruit, the greater my influence and share of compensation.” I’ve been an accidental Gnostic for much of my life. I believed myself a Christian, but I wasn’t. I was obsessed with Carl Jung, I promoted all sorts of unusual conspiracies. I seem to have created a Grand, Epic Narrative spanning my whole last year of high school incorporating mystical symbolism, numbers, patterns, and supernatural encounters. This narrative was weirdly compelling, and five of my closest friends – and a teacher! – were pulled in by it. Kind of like “Memento,” but with prophecy and demons.

So I recently discovered that this is called “Gnosticism.” And I had been getting help, and everything was going beautifully. And then I watched “Shutter Island.”

Teddy ends up being insane. This is a twist that’s been employed so often, you can spot it from a mile off. So when he arrived at the top of the lighthouse and Ben Kingsley pulled out that chalkboard and explained the whole movie, I was incredulous. We had just spent the last hour being told there was a vast Nazi conspiracy, and that They were going to destroy Leo’s faith in his own sanity, and now here They were telling us that the person who had fed Leo this information didn’t even exist. I was so angry, I said, “This isn’t true! They’re lying! Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley are just trying to keep him on the island forever! This is all just a part of their sinister plan!”

I came up with a convoluted theory that the movie is actually two movies in one, and that both possibilities could be equally true – like the Borges mystery story in which you get to the end and you realize the “official” explanation was the wrong one. Maybe Leo was insane; maybe he was on to something; who knows? It was like the end of “Inception”: you choose what you want to believe.

Eventually I realized I was much angrier than the circumstances warranted. And I realized I was invested in believing that Leo was being manipulated by the two people who were trying to help him, because this was a lie that I had told myself about my own best friends. And I think the true brilliance of “Shutter Island” is as a sort of “insanity detector.” People who walk away from the movie believing that Leo was insane for a good part of the movie are generally healthy. People who walk away from the movie fuming about What Actually Happened, and We’re Through the Looking Glass Here, People, need to address some issues.

I can think of one other movie that achieves this uncanny, insanity-detecting duality. It’s called “JFK.”

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