Question: The most compelling characters in a text are those who reveal the darker sides of human nature
‘We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be’, a quote that explores our human tendency to hide behind a false placona when we cannot accept the person we truly are. The issue with hiding behind a false identity is that the longer we hide the easier it becomes to accept that identity and forget who we truly are. This idea is explored by Martin Scorcese in his film ‘Shutter Island’, as he utilises the compelling protagonist, Teddy Daniels, in revealing the darker sides of human nature. Scorcese does this by linking the prevalent themes of ‘perception vs reality’, ‘grief’ and ‘man’s capacity for violence’, to the darkness that resides within us. Creating false placonas, covering up our grief-ridden past and convincing ourselves of the justice in exacting violence, are all downfalls that we as humans are susceptible to.
Through his film, ‘Shutter Island’, Martin Scorcese embodies the darker sides of human nature within the compelling Teddy Daniels. Teddy is a deeply scarred character whose past is characterised by grief and hardship, which he is unable to confront. His inability to accept the truth causes him to erect a mask which represents the person he would prefer to be. Scorcese highlights the dangers of this as we humans tend to hide our true selves behind a false identity in order to find comfort from the dark parts of our past that we would rather suppress.
Teddy, the compelling protagonist, is used by Scorcese to reveal our inherent human tendency to hide our true and scarred selves behind a false placona, falling on the darker side of our human nature. This is portrayed through the prevalent theme of ‘perception vs reality’, which is revealed to the audience during the opening scene of the film. A close-up camera shot of Teddy’s sickly and pallid face reveals a mirror which he uses to examine his reflection. The mirror is significant as it foreshadows Teddy’s split personality; his true self that is a product of his tragic past and his false self, which is a product of the imaginary world which he has conjured. Throughout the film, Teddy transitions between his two alternate identities as he spirals further down into insanity, which takes him to the extent to which he can no longer discern fact from fiction. Hiding the person we truly are behind a conjured image of who we’d rather be, is a dark side of our human nature. It is all too easy to find comfort in a lie than it is to confront the painful truth of the person our past produces. However, as Oprah Winfrey once said ‘The thing you fear most has no power. It is your fear of it which has the power. Facing the truth will really set you free’.Confronting the painful memories is the only way to progress in life and become a stronger person. Sometimes the only way to overcome the fear of what our pain and history trigger in our hearts, is to face them head on.
Teddy is a character who becomes increasingly compelling as he reveals our dark human tendency to cover up the grief that exists in our pasts. This is synonymous with the important theme of ‘grief’ which is an instrumental part of Teddys’ character throughout the film. Teddy’s past is choked by heartache and pain, which stem from the challenging situations he endured, such as the liberation of the Nazi death camp, Dachau, as well as the murder of his wife and children. Unable to handle his grief, Teddy covers it up which is symbolised through the bandaid which occupies the right side of his forehead. This bandaid is first revealed to us through an extreme close-up of Teddy’s face during the opening scene, when he studies his face in the mirror. The bandaid remains on Teddy’s forehead during most of the film as he refuses to expose the wounds that his painful past have inflicted.
It is only at the end of the film, during the scene when Teddy wakes up from unconsciousness at Ashecliffe Hospital, that a close up shot reveals the absence of the bandaid. This scene follows the lighthouse scene, in which Dr Cawley and Dr Sheehan enlighten Teddy to the truth of his past. The absence of the bandaid is significant as it symbolises that Teddy has chosen to accept his wounds and give them a chance to heal. ‘A lie can hide the truth but it can’t change the truth’, an important message from the author Sonya Parker who reminds us that, even though hiding the truth behind a lie is an easy way to cover up our pain, it will not make that pain go away. Accepting our past and the person it makes us is the only way to free ourselves from the burden that pain creates.
Finally, Scorcese portrays Teddy as the most compelling character in the film by utilising him in revealing ‘man’s capacity for violence’, a theme that reveals a darker side to our human nature. This theme is most clearly seen during Teddy’s flashback of his time at Dachau, when a low angle shot shows a dying Nazi General looking up at Teddy, who at the time was an American soldier. This shot is significant in highlighting that Teddy holds the power over the Nazi, who just wants to be put out of his misery. Instead of showing mercy, Teddy decides to the leave the Nazi dyring in pain, as all he can see is a man who is responsisble for unforgivable crimes. Another disconcerting aspect of this scene is the paper that is flying around, which indicates that the audience cannot fully trust what they see as Teddy is an unreliable narrator.
Teddy is a good man but during WW2, he was driven to take violent actions against other men who he saw as the ‘enemy’. This links to the darker side of man, who can become a deadly weapon when made to believe in the evil of other people. Man has a tendency to reciprocate violence for violence as they believe that this is the justifiable thing to do. It can become easy for us humans to be blinded by hatred as seen through Teddy’s aversion to Dr Naehring, as he believes that he is an ex-Nazi. Even though Teddy has no proof, he allows the hatred towards the Nazis that fuelled his violence during WW2, to act as an indicator of who Dr Naehring is and where he comes from. Hatred has the power to taint our opinions of others and can ultimately lead to violent ends.
In conclusion, Martin Scorcese reveals the darker sides of human nature through the compelling character of Teddy throughout Shutter Island. The director masterfully links the common themes of ‘perception vs reality’, ‘grief’, and ‘man’s capacity for violence’, to the inherent darkness that lies within each of us. Teddy shows us the danger of suppressing the truth and attempting to hide it behind false placonas which we have created in order to comfort ourselves. He also highlights how violence can be seen as justifiable if it is aimed towards someone who is perceived as being evil and deserving of punishment. This triggers a hatred that can blind us against the pure innocence of people who are discriminated against because of the crimes of their forebears. Overall, Scorcese warns us against the dark side which all of us possess and how it can breed violence, pain and grief. Even though it may be painful beyond reckoning, the truth of our past is a part of who we are and we should accept this as ‘the less you spend time with truth, the easier it is to believe lies’.