And so we come to the end of our saga of film noir, and we end it with this nice little Scorsese film, Shutter Island. It is a neo-noir in the Nolan vein, with a focus on identity, memory, and psychology that connects it to Memento. It would be all too easy to point out the similarities between Shutter Island to the classic and modern noirs; instead, let’s talk about the reasons Shutter Island is not a noir.
Now, what sets Shutter Island apart most from the other noirs is the big reveal at the end, and this is for two reasons. The first is that, Memento possibly aside, none of our noirs were psychotic fantasies. Certainly other films had subjective view points, but Shutter Island is the first to make the audience question everything they saw in the film. Was the storm actually happening? Did they actually put Teddy on the ship? Did Teddy actually see the Mark Ruffalo down on those rocks, and did he just have a conversation with himself in the cave? The second reason is that in most of our film noirs, especially the classical era films, it is not the mystery of the crime that drives the story. We see how Phyllis and Neff kill Mr. Dietrichson, and Harry Lymes is revealed to not be dead only about half way through The Third Man. In the older films, the twist served the film; in Shutter Island, the film seems to serve the twist.
This, I would argue, makes Shutter Island less Noir-ish. In most of the classic noirs, the world is what’s important. Young Charlie is shown that evil can thrive, even in her small town; Margie learns something similar in Brainerd. Holly Martin is shown true nihilism in Harry, and Jake Gittes stares into the darkness of society as he is dragged away at the end of Chinatown. Film noirs almost universally share a world devoid of an overarching meaning, and most of the narratives consist of characters coming to understand this.
It is not so with Shutter Island. Instead, the world that Teddy/Andrew constructs in his head is much more nihilistic, it seems, than the world out side of it. In the constructed world, there is an evil plot to experiment on the insane; in the real world, the psychologists are really just trying to help. It may be that Shutter Island does have some of the problems that Teddy sees in his constructed world; however, because we are guided by Teddy’s subjective view point, we can only surmise and never actually know what it really is like. This is not a negative, though. Indeed, the film is very powerful if read as saying that the nihilism in noir comes from the interior, not the exterior. Shutter Island, then, might just be a metaphor for the specific type of film making that goes into Film Noir: a person has to creates a meaningless world and throws a hero into it. Maybe Wilder, Hitchcock, et al, need to spend some time on a psychologists couch.
To be fair, the “real” world of Shutter Island does seem bleak; Dachau and the triple murder of the children seem to point that out. However, the doctors question the truth of what Teddy’s firing quad memories at Dachau, and the murder is attributed to Teddy’s wife’s own psychological issues. Both of the darkest elements of the film are both, in a way, written off as products of mental issues. I would say that while Shutter Island is a noir, it is a noir of the mind, and not a noir of the world.