Sunday, February 21, 2010

Searching for Rachel Solando: Meditations on Cheney and Scorsese

Warning: The following article contains polarizing political views in addition to spoilers for Shutter Island. If you wish to avoid both, I suggest you not read the article. I am by my nature not a political writer and if you want two far more insightful and cogent arguments about the nature of torture and Cheney's admission you'd do well to look here and here.

Last week former Vice President Dick Cheney casually admitted in an interview to supporting waterboarding terror suspects. You can read the transcript of the interview where he does this here. Regardless of whether or not you think it makes him culpable as a war criminal, it undoubtedly makes him complicit in torture. Let me make it clear, we're talking about government sanctioned torture. For decades the perception of America on a global scale was that of a principled nation, adhering to the tenants of the Geneva Convention not just because it was afraid of being caught red-handed in illicit activity, but because it was the right thing to do. It was the humane thing to do. Not engaging in torture lets us hold our heads up high, it says with confidence that not only are we not our enemy but that we will not let the action of terrorists drag us into an absolute moral morass.

But the fact is, it's too late. We have been ethically compromised by decisive political action of the previous administration. Which is shocking when you consider that whole political movements are dedicated to the damage that could happen HYPOTHETICALLY to the country if say, gays were allowed to marry, or if health care were accessible and affordable. No, we have been compromised already, our reputation for being humane and decent has been irreparably damaged. Further, the fact that our current administration has chosen to turn a blind eye in investigating who permitted this to happen drags us further downward. It's the kind of thinking that says if we ignore the problem, sweep it under the rug, it will go away. It won't, we just sink deeper.
Which, is all a lengthy preamble to why I think on a subconscious level critics and audiences have been attracted to Martin Scorsese's latest film Shutter Island. In the film Leonardo DiCaprio's federal marshal is drawn to the titular locale to solve the mystery of a criminally insane woman, Rachel Solando, and her disappearance from the institution. Solando has been institutionalized ofr drowning her three children. While he's there DiCaprio uncovers what he believes to be a massive conspiracy wherein the prisoner's are being used as test subjects for government experimentation. Increasing the strenuous nature of his visit, DiCaprio is struggling with memories of his former platoon's liberation of Dachau and the death of his wife at the hand's of an arsonist. He is also, and this is essential, a man with great cunning and capacity for violence.

As the film progresses DiCaprio's already tenuous grasp on his own sanity loosens and the conspiracy seems to grow ever more dense. This is in turn echoed by the presence of strong elemental forces that fill both DiCaprio's reality as well as his fantasy life. The audience is inundated with images of waves crashing, torrents of water gushing down and the sounds of water dripping everywhere. This is in contrast to the fire that we also see in DiCaprio's dream. The extreme, destructive polarities push us and the protagonist to the edge. Even if the film does not outright use the term "waterboarding" DiCaprio is pelted with he stuff from above enough times to create the association. The same goes for the image of drowned children.

Bear in mind the setting of the film, 1954, where people are still shaking off the horrors of WWII and HUAC is beginning to rear its ugly head. It's also, as explained by Ben Kingsley's psychologist at the prison, a critical juncture in psychological treatment. Kingsley's character purports to being a medical progressive. Moving away from the more medieval practices and into more psychoanalytical and pharmacological alternatives. Kingsley keeps some grim reminders of these past horrors as etchings in his office and upon seeing them DiCaprio is set-off and flashes back to piles of emaciated bodies. If it wasn't already clear, Scorsese wants us to create the following linkage-concentration camps, asylum, psychology, insanity.

Now in addition to all of this psychological duress, the killer of DiCaprio's wife, an arsonist played by Elias Koteas is also being held in the most dangerous ward in the prison. DiCaprio is pulled in multiple directions. Is he there to find the missing patient? Reveal the conspiracy? Or is it a more personal vendetta to find his wife's killer and avenge her death? Scorsese and DiCaprio keep the proceedings as ambiguous as possible. Here now an essential component enters the dialogue of the film, the twin ideas of guilt and revenge. DiCaprio's feelings of helplessness continue to eat at him. There was death and he was unable to prevent it and he remains uncertain as to whether or not avenging this is the proper course of action.
Similarly the presence of Max Von Sydow's German doctor leads DiCaprio to believe Nazi experimental techniques have been brought to the island. DiCaprio's visions and the rumbling of inmates point him to the isolated lighthouse at the edge of the island. Another island in the already isolated setting. He is warned that what he will find in there will only bring him misery. As DiCaprio storms the lighthouse Scorsese, working in conjunction with his set designer, DP and DiCaprio ramps up the tension. The lighthouse has a spiral staircase with several floors. The twisty nature of DiCaprio's own psyche nicely mirrors the staircase but with each door that DiCaprio kicks down only to find nothing makes our anticipating sense of dread grow. It seems to go on forever. When he finally does reach the top floor he does only find misery, but not the kind we're anticipating.

What greets him is Kingsley's doctor who has been waiting for him. There he calmly explains that the entire investigation has been an elaborate role-playing session in which everyone on the island was complicit. DiCaprio, while an actual federal marshal, is also the one responsible for killing his wife. The arsonist was a creation of DiCaprio's psyche. The patient who has disappeared was a surrogate for his wife. It was DiCaprio's who had drowned her children, Solando was a creation of DiCaprio's mind. DiCaprio in turn killed her for drowning their children. Kingsley goes on to explain that DiCaprio has been undergoing an elaborate role-playing therapy where everyone on the island was complicit in treating him. Now here, the pulp threads of the story really begin to show. Presumably we are supposed to take what Kingsley and his confederates say at face value. He begs DiCaprio to agree to treatment to accept this shocking reality at face value. This is problematic because to deny the treatment would mean that the advance psychoanalytic procedures don't work and that Kingsley and his team will have to resort to the draconian measures of the past. This puts DiCaprio in an untenable situation. He must become complicit to the new reality and advance a broader humanist cause or he risks appearing as the insane, vengeance obsessed lunatic who has the entire system opposing him anyway.

For a scene it appears that Kingsley treatment worked. DiCaprio admits to what has happened. He complies with the narrative. The next scene however has DiCaprio reverting to his original vengeance obsessed persona. He still believes he is searching for the missing prisoner. With that Kingsley turns to his team and it is clear that the orderlies DiCaprio is walking off with are leading him to a full frontal lobotomy. Before he goes he turns to his partner played by Mark Ruffalo (now having been revealed as his primary psychologist) and says "Seems to's better to die a good man, than live as a monster."

This is all a very long ways around to getting to my main point. My sense is that one of the reasons audiences and critics are responding to this film and it feels so of the moment, despite its past setting, is that the film is engaging in an intense dialogue about (and our complicity in) government sanctioned torture. Imagine DiCaprio's character as America. Cunning, professionally successful and prone to fits of violence. Coming out of a bloody war and having undergone intense personal trauma for which he wants vengeance? Oh yes, there can be no doubt. Now the character is struggling with the idea of being tortured in lieu of an effective cure as we too as a nation have been confronted with "enhanced interrogation" in lieu of effective intelligence gathering.
Now if we follow this thread along to the film's conclusion DiCaprio ultimately chooses to meet his own end living in the fantasy where he is righteous and rational rather than confront the much grimmer reality. The hero instead of the monster. However, there are dual consequences to this. For one, it prevents the progressive treatment. Second, it does irreparable harm to DiCaprio. Similarly, in leaving our torture crimes go unaddressed and not investigated we do damage not only to our international reputation and our national psyche but it damages our ability to move forward and grow. We live in a country where we pretend to be the hero, but were just left with monsterdom. There is no Rachel Solando, for our sake accept it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A fine piece of writing/thinking, but you could use a good copy editor to fix mispunctuations.