Why is Shutter Island so underrated

Shutter Island: Mahler’s Musical Fragments, Irony, and Fairy Tale

Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller, Shutter Island (2010) follows the character Teddy Daniels in his pursuit of a missing patient from the island’s prison for the mentally ill. The film opens with a ship’s silhouette emerging from the fog, and the dark rich tones are immediately set. It comes as no surprise then that the film received praise for its overall atmosphere. As the film progresses, the audience feels the looming sense of doom that hangs over the island. Scorsese’s ability to pull us into the narrative is not done solely through the strong visual. The soundtrack is effectively employed to convey the film’s complex psychological themes. Scorsese’s careful use of sound indicates the care he uses when constructing his film’s auditory landscape. Each note is used to convey a message, whether or not the audience makes the connections consciously.

When sound is employed effectively, the audience will not only hear it but also feel it. The sound will have an impact on the audience’s relationship to the scene. What the audience might not fully recognize is the weight of a particular piece in the film’s context. This is exactly the case for Shutter Island and the use of composer Gustav Mahler. Chamber music is not a genre that general audiences have an in-depth knowledge of so there are other similar pieces that might have evoked that same emotional reaction. Even another Mahler piece might have been selected for the film, but the song used is Mahler’s “Piano Quartet in A Minor”, often referred to as Piano Quartet.

An audience might recognize immediately the instrumentation of the song as being comprised of piano, violin, viola, and cello. Audiences associate certain sounds to the desired emotional response. Strings usually convey a tremendous amount of emotion that audiences can gauge their reaction against. The trembling of the strings will cause anxiety and indicate fear. A long drawn out note might convey longing or love. The strings in this particular context take on a more nuanced meaning because of the man who arranged them and how this arrangement speaks to the scene. The song first plays as Teddy Daniels, and the audience, are introduced to the living quarters of the doctor.

Unfinished and Unfulfilled

The piece was written early in Mahler’s career, either 1876 or 1877 (Johnson 100). It stands out among Mahler’s other work because it was written so early; and yet, it remained unfinished with only the first movement completed. The fact that the piece was never finished reflects our main character, Teddy Daniels. Teddy Daniels is a fragmented person trying desperately to understand the violence and the world around him. His own tragic life is filled with the loss of his wife and the violent world he was forced to witness. His inability to understand the trauma in his life causes a fracture to the “self.” The incomplete nature of this song becomes a reflection of the incomplete nature of Teddy. He feels isolated, fragmented, and unable to reconstruct himself.

After arriving to the island, Teddy meets with the doctors who run the facilities. When Teddy enters the doctor’s house, the Mahler piece plays. The song continues to play during a flashback of Teddy’s memory when he first heard the piece. It appears that the first time Teddy heard the piece was during WWII. The song plays over the images of Teddy at the concentration camp, and more disturbingly, over the botched suicide job of the Nazi officer. The floating documents that fill the room as Teddy walks in matches the cascading melodic lines of the Piano Quartet. We feel the discomfort Teddy feels because of the lightness of the piece paired with the bodies of prisoners. The slower tempo, along with the passion with which the notes are played, indicate a type of longing. The prisoners long for their freedom from death while the Nazi officer longs for the freedom death will provide. The song speaks to both sides while reflecting Teddy’s internal state.

The entire scene, and movie, has fairy tale qualities–albeit a dark one. This is partially achieved through the song’s melodic lines such as the richness of the song’s tone coupled with the short piano notes. These two qualities evoke a Grimm fairy tale feeling where the protagonist enters the dark woods on a quest. In the memory, Teddy is entering the dark woods that is the prison camp in attempt to rescue the prisoners. In the film, Teddy enters the dark woods of Shutter Island to rescue a prisoner. Teddy becomes lost and tries to find answers, and subconsciously, his self. These fairy tales relied upon magic, superstitions, and disobedience. For example, Hansel and Gretel, enter the dark woods only to be tricked by a witch. The films uses these same elements but rather than magic, Teddy faces deceit through science.

The fairy tale quality of the song stems from Mahler’s use of the Romantic tradition in his work. The haunting nature of the notes is attributed to the Romantic’s fascination with the supernatural. Mahler’s musical work is influenced by late Romanticism and early Modernism (Johnson 102). The influence of the Romanticism is heard in the expressions and the emotion. The influence of Modernism caused Mahler to focus on irony and challenging traditional musical structures. His work is not simplified to mere chronology because throughout his lifetime his work consisted of the tension between these genres. His work exists between two places in a musical grey area. Teddy is a character caught in the grey trying desperately to define himself. Mahler’s work is known for its strong voice, a very emotional voice, and yet, his early works often struggled to convey this voice. Teddy struggles to find his own true voice during the film, and by the end the audience is unaware if Teddy has ever found it.

It is not enough that the song parallels Teddy’s emotional and mental state. The complex nature of Teddy’s identity is tied to the provocative nature of using Mahler to begin with. One of the qualities respected in Mahler’s work is his ability to use irony and show the listener the constructed nature of the piece. Irony becomes a key element of the film upon a second viewing. The audience is aware watching again how often the dialogue takes on a double meaning. The music acts the same way. The audience is encouraged to examine whether Teddy remembers the song in the way he perceives. Due to questioning the source of Teddy’s memory, the audience becomes aware of the constructed nature of both the song and Teddy’s identity. To understand this further, we can begin with the location in which Teddy remembers the song being played for the first time, the concentration camp.

As Teddy’s memory shows, the Nazi officer has the song playing on vinyl while he lies in a pool of his own blood. The beautiful irony of the scene is that Mahler was Jewish. His music was banned in Germany during WWII. His music does not belong where it is being heard. The music is out of place just as Teddy is out of place. The volume of the song changes depending if the song is being heard by the current Teddy Daniels or in the memory. When it is in the present it remains at the bottom of the sound hierarchy with dialogue being heard much louder, while in the memory it moves to the top of the hierarchy. During the dialogue for present day Teddy, the faintness of the volume indicates Teddy’s memories of the song always lurking inside him.

While the memory of the song is always there so is the memory of the violence that accompanied it. The beauty of the song contrasted against the the violence evokes the irony and fairy tale qualities that make Mahler the ideal selection for the film. The fact that the song remained unfinished just as Teddy Daniels remained unfinished and a fragment. These are the details that an audience might not know when watching the film, but they can hear it. In the end, it could not have been any other piece. This one particular song represents the overall complexity and mastery found at the sonic level in Shutter Island. 

Works Cited and a Note from Author

Johnson, Julian. Mahler’s Voice: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

This piece began as a simple 500 word write-up on one song off the Shutter Island sound track for Dr. Elsie Walker of Salisbury University. It turned into something much larger and much more fascinating.

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