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Men of Violence: Toxic Masculinity in “Shutter Island”

Monday, June 28, 2021 | Deep Dives


Martin Scorsese’s sole horror film has been mostly forgotten by genre audiences. Though SHUTTER ISLAND adapted from the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, boasts an A-list cast and stellar production value, this mind-bending story of post-World War II era U.S. Marshals investigating a mysterious hospital for the criminally insane never achieved the enduring acclaim reserved for films like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Though its subject matter deviates in setting and genre from the famed director’s larger canon, SHUTTER ISLAND’s themes align with much of his most celebrated work. Similar to Scorsese’s Academy Award winning The Departed, SHUTTER ISLAND presents its characters in clear opposition as men of empathy and men of violence, exploring the inherent destruction caused by the glorification of toxic masculinity.

Shortly after arriving on the titular island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) meet the hospital’s two senior doctors, men diametrically opposed in their understanding of mental health care. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is an empathetic caregiver with a progressive philosophy of treatment. Though most of the patients on Shutter Island have committed violent crimes, he sees them as human beings suffering from an illness and deserving of comfort and care. His mission is to treat them and attempt to rehabilitate their lives while keeping them safely away from the general population. 

His counterpart, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) takes the opposite position. He views the people under his care as inmates rather than patients, their mental illnesses perhaps interesting, but ultimately unimportant. “Wounds can create monsters,” he tells Teddy, “and when you see a monster, you … you must stop it.” Seeing his patients as monsters, he understands his mission to be either containment or destruction. He is not interested in healing the wounds of his patients before they can become monstrous, seeking only to keep them locked away from the decent society he believes to be inherently more valuable. His methods are manual restraint and lobotomy. This barbaric procedure is the very essence of violence in treatment. Rather than seek to understand the mentally ill, Dr. Naehring prefers destroying part of the brain to cause submissiveness in the patient. 

Upon meeting him, Dr. Naehring calls Teddy a man of violence, incapable of retreat and tending to match any challenge with brute force. He is supported in this ideology by the Warden (Ted Levine), a large and menacing man who views violence as a gift from god, a virtuous tool to find empowerment through destruction. His worldview is zero sum and reliant on dominating everyone around him. The Warden sees power as the ultimate necessity and violence his god-given means of attaining it. He cares not for empathy, only wanting his violence to overtake the violence of his opponent. 

As the story unfolds, Teddy becomes the catalyst for these two oppositional worldviews to play out. While the Marshal’s stated mission may be to find a missing patient, he is secretly hoping to locate a convict named Andrew Laeddis, an arsonist who set a fire that ultimately killed Teddy’s wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). However, things are not as they seem and we learn that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis himself, a patient at Shutter Island. His partner Chuck, is Dr. Sheehan, his primary physician. The entire film has been an elaborate role play designed to help Andrew admit a devastating truth about his past. 

Andrew’s wife Dolores was not killed by a fire, but by Teddy himself after he came home to find she had drowned their three children. Dolores was mentally ill and by refusing to admit this to himself and ignoring her pleas for help, he failed to protect his children. The weight of his grief and guilt is so immense that he has created an alternate personality to avoid having to face it every day. He’s desperate to hold onto this new identity and will violently lash out at anyone who reminds him of his true past. The role play experiment is a last ditch effort to reach Teddy as he has become increasingly violent, nearly killing a fellow patient who called him by his real name. In his delusion, he is the most dangerous patient at Shutter Island and is scheduled for a lobotomy which will hopefully curb his violent tendencies while likely destroying his consciousness. 

It is in the treatment of Teddy and Andrew and the dichotomy presented by these two personas that the true conflict of the film comes into focus. Teddy is a U.S. Marshal with power given to him by the government. He enters Shutter Island as a guest and his questions must be answered. His search for Andrew Laedis provides him with a clear goal and an exterior focal point for his rage and fury. The blame lies elsewhere and he can quiet his mind by constantly searching for answers that position him as the hero of the story. 

Andrew’s position is much more passive. His crime has already been committed, the situation tragically resolved. As a patient, Andrew is unable to leave Shutter Island, his access to his doctors, guards, and staff limited. Though he is receiving care, he has very little power. His only goal is to accept the fact that he failed to protect his family and that he no longer has control over the course of his life. He can do nothing to take back the mistakes he made and it’s too late to fix anything. 

Andrew’s tragic story is a testament to the fallacy of Dr. Naehring’s method of treatment and a prime example of the destructive power of toxic masculinity. Andrew was aware of Dolores’s fragile mental state and of her suicide attempt. But he lives in a society of male dominance, a patriarchy that views mental illness as weakness. Teddy sees his wife’s condition as one he must hide rather than help in the same way Dr. Naehring seeks to restrain rather than treat his patients. In describing Andrew as a man of violence, he notes that men like Andrew don’t view retreat as an option, but that is all Andrew does. Instead of getting Dolores help, he retreats into a bottle. He works long hours and after Dolores attempts suicide, he moves them to an isolated lake house. After her death, he creates Teddy, an attempt to retreat into an identity that still has his understanding of power.  

Once Teddy finally does accept reality, once he has nowhere left to mentally run, he almost immediately reverts to his delusions because the thought of living with his grief, guilt, and helplessness is too much to bear. The film’s ending implies that he embraces his fate, knowingly acting as Teddy and ultimately choosing to end any meaningful therapy. Andrew retreats into this violence of lobotomy and oblivion because he knows it will end his suffering. 

What seems to finally break through Teddy’s mental defenses is the idea that denying he killed his wife means erasing the existence of his beloved daughter. And this is the price of his retreat. In forgetting his former life, he loses any treasured memories of his family. The painful memories he is so desperate to ignore are all he has left. They bubble beneath the surface haunting his dreams and begging to be processed and released. But he’s too scared to look. Admitting that this horrific tragedy is real would mean changing the way he’s been told to identify himself. He would no longer be a strong man capable of countering violence with violence. He would have to admit that he lost.

SHUTTER ISLAND exposes the fallacy in glorifying these men of violence by showing that their ideology only ends in destruction. Dr. Crowley and Dr. Sheehan are men of empathy, but they are also men of courage. They go to great lengths and put themselves in danger to treat Andrew and help him heal. They continue to fight for him over and over again until the decision is no longer theirs. Dr. Naehring’s method is the true retreat. He sees that fighting for Andrew would require him to extend empathy and form a connection with another person, not one based on violent domination, but on recognizing the humanity in another, and he chooses to run. 

Andrew’s final question is heartbreaking. Before submitting to a lobotomy he asks Dr. Sheehan, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” The essence of toxic masculinity is the idea that these are the only two options. Human beings are more than just one thing and the never ending struggle for dominance leaves so many men behind. True strength and courage lie in the understanding that empathy will always be more productive than violence. Sometimes good men have monstrous wounds, but through compassion and human connection, those wounds can heal.

Jenn Adams
Jenn Adams is a writer and podcaster from Nashville, TN. She co-hosts both Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast and The Loser’s Club: A Stephen King Podcast. In addition to Rue Morgue, her writing has been published at Ghouls Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Certified Forgotten. She is the author of the Strong Female Antagonist blog and will gladly talk your ear off about final girls, feminism, and Stephen King. @jennferatu