Where is my mind

Posted by · 5:14 pm · August 3rd, 2010

As that finicky final shot of “Inception” continues to prompt confusion and discussion in comment boards across the internet, it would appear that some people still aren’t done processing Leonardo DiCaprio’s first puzzle pic of 2010.

Much has been made of the sizable overlap between Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster and Martin Scorsese’s winter genre exercise “Shutter Island” — not least in the respective characters played by the films’ mutual leading man — and this extends to ambiguous finales that, in both cases, cast doubt on said character’s state of consciousness.

I must admit I wasn’t aware that the debate over the end of “Shutter Island” is quite so extensive; perhaps because I watched the film with Dennis Lehane’s novel — to which the film is letter-faithful for the first 99% of its running time — so fresh in my mind, I didn’t give the film’s minor digressions a second thought. (I wasn’t all that engaged anyway.)

But a few days ago, The Guardian’s David Cox revived the discussion, breaking down two opposing interpretations of a key line of dialogue (spoiler alert, obviously):

[B]efore he falls into the clutches of the lobotomists, [DiCaprio] utters a line that isn’t in the book. “This place makes me wonder,” he asks, “which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” For some, this is to be seen as no more than the rambling of a madman. Others, however, take it as meaning that Andrew’s only faking his relapse. His unusual treatment’s made him aware of the terrible thing he’s done: guilt has therefore engulfed him, and he’s deliberately getting himself lobotomised to escape it.

With the endorsement of the film’s own psychiatric consultant, Cox arrives at the conclusion that the latter reading (which, it should be said, requires a figurative definition of death) is the only correct one: DiCaprio’s body language in the final scene, he argues, suggests the character’s complicity in his fate. The former reading, however, has a notable adherent in the form of Dennis Lehane himself:

Personally, I think he has a momentary flash. To me that’s all it is. It’s just one moment of sanity mixed in the midst of all the other delusions … My feeling was no, he’s not so conscious he says ‘Oh I’m going to decide to pretend to be Laeddis so they’ll finally give me a lobotomy.’ That would just be far more suicidal than I think this character is. I think that in one moment, for a half a second sitting there in that island he remembered who he was and then he asks that question and he quickly sort of lets it go.

That was the conclusion I took away from the film, but as I said, Lehane’s novel had already predisposed me to such an interpretation. As more of you revisit the film on DVD, has the issue been on your mind? Where do you stand? And who else would like to see Leo play someone a little more mentally together in his next film?

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39 responses so far

  • 1 8-03-2010 at 5:20 pm

    Shannon said...

    I did not read the book, but my interpretation was that he definitely was sane at the end of the film and he couldn’t live with the knowledge of what he’d done so he pretended to relapse again so that they would lobotomize him and he wouldn’t have to remember anymore. I honestly didn’t think there was any other way to interpret the film, but I didn’t realize the book had a different ending. Interesting.

  • 2 8-03-2010 at 5:32 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    I thought it was obvious that he relapsed, this interpretation never crossed my mind. Interesting. I wonder what Scorsese thinks of this?

  • 3 8-03-2010 at 5:47 pm

    austin111 said...

    Interestingly, whatever choice there was for him to make is essentially a delusion. Teddy’s either still buying into his standard delusional behavior or he’s trying to escape it by passively accepting lobotomy. But neither is true to his actual nature, which is that of an essentially violent man unable to effectively shake off his personal demons. The only difference, I guess, would be that he actually chose his fate with the latter and acted on it. Essentially an existential move, oui. And, yeah, I’d love to see DiCaprio leave this behind because he clearly is capable of other things, although I think he plays it very, very well. This is one of those movies that will only grow in stature, Guy, whether you accept that or not. It captured a segment of the popular imagination and most movies just don’t do that. Love it or hate it movies usually end up being more accepted with the passage of time. Critics may think they know what’s good for the rest of us, but they ain’t always right!

  • 4 8-03-2010 at 5:56 pm

    James D. said...

    I wasn’t aware of any such debate, either. Besides, a lobotomy is not dying as a good man, but rather another form of living. If he wanted to die, couldn’t he just jump off the cliffs? You know, the ones that the mental hospital allowed him to traverse in their absurd performance art piece?

  • 5 8-03-2010 at 6:04 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Why so defensive, Austin? I’m not denying anyone’s right to appreciate the film.

    On another note, people are awfully quick to brand certain films as “love it or hate it” propositions, when it’s entirely possible to be conflicted or lukewarm on them. (I’m seeing a lot of this with “Inception” too.) Why this need to sort viewers into black and white camps?

  • 6 8-03-2010 at 6:10 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    I believe that his character in “Shutter Island” had reached sanity, but couldn’t live with the guilt of what he’d done. As for the ending to “Inception”, I came to terms with the fact that he’d returned to reality at the end of the film. The wobble wasn’t so much a tease, as it was closure. That signified that Cobb, though at first unsure of his reality (thus him spinning the top in the first place), finally comes to realize what is real.

  • 7 8-03-2010 at 7:03 pm

    JJ said...

    It could very well be either interpretation (as shot).
    You can’t really make a case against either.

    I believe that he is sane and chooses the lobotomy. I honestly believe that. BUT, with the relapse interpretation, it makes it the ending all the more tragic; which I kinda like (in a sick twisted way).

  • 8 8-03-2010 at 7:06 pm

    JJ said...

    Oh, and I too, believe Cobb returned to reality at the end of Inception (if only … SPOILER … for the fact of the 2 different sets of children in the credits; and the commentary by repeat viewers to who notice changes in the kids’ ages, hair, outfits). I like both interpretations in Inception, but believe he’s back in reality.

  • 9 8-03-2010 at 7:20 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    I don’t think Shutter Island is a “hate it or love it” film. Reactions were mixed across the board, ranging from those who loved it, those who thought it was a watchable, generic thriller and those who outright hated it. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. But yes, I do think the film will grow in stature over time. I don’t think the film is an empty genre exercise, and as this debate pointed out, there is much to the film that can be discussed and mulled over. Very few directors have that kind of directorial control evident in their work. Scorsese integrates Lehane’s pulpy plot with themes like guilt, redemption, and the American psych. It’s a thriller with a lot on its mind, and I think the film will gain more and more fans as time goes by. I’m now tempted to watch it again.

  • 10 8-03-2010 at 7:34 pm

    JTag said...

    “Shutter Island” – totally intepreted it as he made a decision to get a lobotomy because he couldn’t live with what he’d done. I was very surprised when my friend told me the ending of the book makes it clear it was a relapse.

    “Inception” – I am such a fan of heist movies that I figured the top was a just a little fun thing Nolan threw in at the end to make us go “ohhhh” but ultimately Cobb is back in reality. I just love “put the team together, get the job done” type films.

  • 11 8-03-2010 at 8:02 pm

    Speaking English said...

    The top spinning or falling at the end of “Inception” doesn’t even matter. What matters is that Cobb turned his back on it, willing to accept that reality as whatever it was. We’re seeing it, he’s believing it, so it’s “real,” even if it’s “not real.”

  • 12 8-03-2010 at 8:16 pm

    Hans said...

    JJ: I read somewhere that the kids’ differing ages doesn’t actually prove anything since the younger pair might have actually been the child actors we see on the beach with Mal when Ariadne invades Cobb’s dream.

  • 13 8-03-2010 at 8:32 pm

    austin111 said...

    Perhaps stated a bit too strongly re: love it or hate it although that is how I remember many of the responses to the film. I’ll just say it was divisive to a strong extent, even though some responses were just lukewarm at best. Actually I don’t find that a bad thing, per se. It’s just indicative of something that reached a segment of the population in a more profound way, pro or con, and a good many people who saw it felt more strongly about it. Better to be talked about than forgotten, right? I’m not trying to divide people into black and white camps, either. LOL. Whatever trips your trigger, Guy, is okay with me. It just may not trip my trigger and vice versa, of course.

  • 14 8-03-2010 at 9:15 pm

    jason said...

    nolan had one at the end of prestige too, didn’t he?

  • 15 8-03-2010 at 10:17 pm

    Al said...

    I’m surprised that so many people weren’t aware of the interpretation of the ending. Not having read the book, I was one of the ones who took Leo’s monolog to mean he was choosing to get a lobotomy. Pretty sure it was Marty’s intention to leave this ambiguous.

  • 16 8-04-2010 at 12:23 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I wasn’t aware of the interpretations either. It was a fascinating film but as I recall the ending felt pretty much like some kind of closure while only debating just what was real and what not.

    Also, the love-hate debate with this film is particularly interesting because it’s certainly flawed but everyone’s still talking about it and even though the movie sometimes becamse a bit trite it was still a fascinating one to watch and ponder over later, mostly because of the technical achievements, but also the interesting play with the levels of narration.

  • 17 8-04-2010 at 4:33 am

    Carlo said...

    I was always thinking the David Cox interpretation of the ending was indeed the right way to look at it, though now reading Lehane’s version, it sounds pretty interesting.

    Everyone’s been tossing around the idea of Joseph Gordon Levitt playing the Riddler in the next Batman, but I haven’t heard anybody mention Leo DiCaprio in the running. I mean, he HAS worked with Nolan already and he hasn’t played a villain before; plus, he’s unbelievably talented.

    I’d like to take a moment to think out of the box outside the possibility of Gordon-Levitt because he seems to be the de facto casting choice as of the moment. What do you guys think?:)

  • 18 8-04-2010 at 4:37 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Michael C. Hall all the way, as far as I’m concerned.

  • 19 8-04-2010 at 4:46 am

    JJ said...

    Hans, that may be true. Good call. I suppose I am taking those assumptions (different sets of kids) to go along with the theory that it is reality he enters at the end.

    To me, though Nolan mindfuc*s so well, it’s clear that “all is clear” when Cobb opens his eyes on the plane and looks over at his team & Saito. But it could all be a dream. Haha, I love not knowing for sure.

  • 20 8-04-2010 at 5:59 am

    Ben M. said...

    I’ve read the Shutter Island novel and have different interpretations between there and in the film, in the novel I think he reverts while he chooses the lobotomy in the film (after all films and novels can have differences). For Inception, I always felt he returned to reality, and for several reasons it seems like the only ending that makes sense to me.

  • 21 8-04-2010 at 10:03 am

    Silencio said...

    I did actually tell the friends I saw Inception with to also watch Shutter Island, as they’re fascinating companion pieces. Shutter Island stayed with me more, but they’re both worthy of discussion. I felt that in Shutter Island he was sane at the end. In Inception I felt he was delusional the entire time, and that the entire film was him performing inception on himself.

  • 22 8-04-2010 at 11:54 am

    JJ said...

    Silencio, how/where/when would he performing inception on himself? I’m not being condescending or sarcastic at all. I’m just honestly curious. :-)

  • 23 8-04-2010 at 1:34 pm

    Silencio said...

    The last scene struck me as another dream layer, and that if the film were to continue, we could have seen this. The fact that only HIS subconscious can affect the world that his team works in told me that either this was all his dream, or it was a logical inconsistency that Nolan didn’t bother to address. I’m leaning towards the former, especially given the title of the film. All the other characters could be projections that his own subconscious created.

  • 24 8-04-2010 at 2:38 pm

    Edward L. said...

    I felt that at the end of Shutter Island he had relapsed – if, indeed, he had ever been free of his ‘lapsed’ state. I’m prepared to entertain the alternative interpretation, but either way, he’s not a well man. I thought the final shot of Shutter Island worked very well as a summation of the film’s drama.

    Inception, meanwhile, felt to me like a shallow film, notwithstanding its layers of dreams. What it has to ‘say’ doesn’t warrant such levels of narrative. Its central conceit – that ideas are formed in the subconscious while we are dreaming – is flawed, as many of the best ideas are formed while we’re awake and talking in a rational, even mundane way with colleagues. And I felt that the film badly wasted a bunch of talented actors.

    I wasn’t totally for or against either film, Both have strengths and flaws. Inception felt more ‘fun’ than Shutter Island and more slickly made, but Shutter Island is, I think, the more haunting and compelling work.

  • 25 8-04-2010 at 2:40 pm

    RichardA said...

    To me, Shutter Island had a clear ending and it was clever. Inception wasn’t so clear, but by the end, I could hardly care. Because it’s his happy ending.

  • 26 8-04-2010 at 5:00 pm

    Fitz said...

    Given Scorsese’s filmography and his predisposition to Catholic guilt, I can’t see how Leo’s character isn’t sane at the end seeking some sort of end to it all.

  • 27 8-04-2010 at 6:58 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Ugh, endings that suggest everything that went before was an illusion or dream and needs to be reinterpreted accordingly. We’re in M. Night Shyamalan territory here.

  • 28 8-05-2010 at 8:39 am

    sam said...

    I didn’t question the ending of shutter island — i thought he just couldn’t handle the truth and reverted back. Inception is not really something of a debate — it’s just a question that you answer for yourself. One thing that I hope is that Leonardo Dicaprio wins best actor this year. He has pulled in so many numerous great performances over the years but after having the sandra bullock year — he should be the front runner and should win — for shutter island.

  • 29 8-06-2010 at 8:19 am

    MovieMan said...

    Yes, “Inception” and “Shutter Island” are companion pieces, but not in the way that most people say they are. Namely because neither of them add up to anything other than a cop out.

  • 30 8-06-2010 at 8:20 pm

    austin111 said...

    Yeah, in a fair world Leo would even get a nomination for SI, but he’ll be more likely left out again this year, I’m afraid. Still, can’t feel too sorry for the guy — as far as I can tell, he’s won the lottery already.

  • 31 8-07-2010 at 1:53 am

    R.M. said...


    The key to Inception is his wedding ring. Dreams = no ring. Reality = ring.

  • 32 8-07-2010 at 5:40 am

    moviefan1 said...

    DiCaprio should win? Last time I checked we still havent seen Gosling, Firth, Duvall, or Bardem’s performances yet

  • 33 8-07-2010 at 6:46 am

    austin111 said...

    DiCaprio should win??? Nah, I wouldn’t say that. I’d love to see him nominated, though. He gave a pretty great performance in SI and it wasn’t an easy one. Reminded me a little of Brando mixed with Jimmy Stewart at times. But, yeah, Bardem, et al, are waiting in the wings. My money’s on Bardem but just because I think he’s such an incredibly talented, empathetic, amazing actor whose abilities kind of eclipse any of the others mentioned above, not to denigrate any of them, of course. All fine actors. Anyway, it’s not necessarily the actors who win oscars, it’s the roles they play.

  • 34 8-07-2010 at 6:54 am

    moviefan1 said...

    Sorry, I just heard someone say he should win for Shutter Island, which was a good performance but I think its too early to say if he deserves to win. I can see a nomination depending if some of those performances do not live up to the expectations. I think Colin Firth has a chance primarily based on the character and also that some people think he should have won last year for A Single Man, and the academy loves to make up for their past mistakes

  • 35 8-07-2010 at 7:55 am

    Dann. said...

    Regardless of what the facts are they’ll always be interpreted differently. Perspective is intriguing, innit?

  • 36 8-07-2010 at 7:58 am

    Dann. said...

    Also, I’d like the discussion that Cobb performed inception on himself to continue, quite interesting.

  • 37 8-07-2010 at 12:44 pm

    JJ said...

    I agree with Dann.

  • 38 8-07-2010 at 8:50 pm

    austin111 said...

    WARNING: A few spoilers

    I think Inception’s ending is definitely open to more than one interpretation. He could have performed inception on himself. That might even include the idea of the top wobbling as he walks away from it, don’t you think? He’s obviously happy as a clam to just have his kids back in some form or other. Also, there were all the other members of the team along with him as he passes through the airport giving him a nod/wink and a knowing smile. Kind of happy ending that only happens in dreams or movies, isn’t it? Also, what the heck does Saito say at the end when he’s still old Saito? Crap, I had an awful time deciphering what he was saying at times. Basically loved the movie, though. Most entertaining movie Nolan has ever made, imo. This is some sort of oddball work of art. Can’t wait to see how it’s looked upon in a few years.

  • 39 8-08-2010 at 3:28 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Last time I checked we still havent seen Gosling, Firth, Duvall, or Bardem’s performances yet”

    Actually, Gosling, Duvall and Bardem’s performances have all been seen — only Duvall’s by the general moviegoing public, admittedly, but they aren’t unknown quantities.