An unreliable narrator is a device used by storytellers to mislead the audience. They follow the story from the protagonist’s perspective until they find out that the main character himself is not credible, meaning that he has (intentionally or not) distorted the events that have taken place.
Even though the unreliable narrator is considered a technique typical of literature, many movies have started using it as well to shock the audience with a plot twist that reveals the unreliability of the protagonist at the very end.
Unreliable narrator vs Reliable narrator
Most stories are told either by the writer (third person), by one of the characters (second person), or by the protagonist himself (first person). And usually all those are reliable narrators.
By “reliable” I mean someone who reports the events actually as they are taking place. On the other hand an “unreliable” narrator is someone who describes the story inaccurately.
Omitting scenes, lying about his or other characters’ intentions, adding elements etc… these are all characteristics typical of an unreliable narrator.
The protagonist of this movie is Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal who is sent to the mysterious Shutter Island (which hosts a psychiatric facility) to investigate the disappearance of a patient.
At first glance, Teddy seems to be a perfectly normal government officer doing his job. He searches every inch of the patient’s room, interviews the staff, talks to the lead psychiatrist and searches the island with the help of the local police.
There are a few “odd” moments but nothing seems to be alarming. After all, the facility hosts the most dangerous mentally ill criminals of America and the audience is expecting “odd” things from a place like that.
We spend the whole movie with Teddy, he is in every single scene and the story is told entirely from his prospective. Up until now, there is no reason to suspect that anything is wrong with him.
Then, a few signs seems to indicate that he might not be completely lucid:
1- Dreams and hallucinations
2- Irrational fears/thoughts
3- Illogical decisions
All those elements sprinkled here and there through the story, manage to keep the audience guessing weather or not the protagonist is reliable.
1- Reality vs Fantasy
Teddy’s dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations are all shown to us without a particular change in the color scheme or some kind of “warning”.
I’ve written another post (How to reveal a plot twist through a flashback) a while ago about how movies use filters and sound effects to signal to the audience that what they’re seeing is a flashback or a flashforward.
Shutter Island doesn’t do that. Or maybe I should say that it does it… but just sometimes.
Up until the point when Teddy’s real identity is revealed, the whole movie “feels” like a flashback.
The lighting of a scene can change drastically without a reason, objects appear and disappear between cuts, ominous music plays when absolutely nothing is happening and seemingly random characters appear out of the blue.
This makes it harder to tell the difference between flashback/hallucination and reality. And since the audience sees things from the protagonist’s perspective, they truly feel as confused and helpless as Teddy.
2- The narrator’s behaviour
An unreliable narrator is not always the “victim” of a misunderstanding. Sometimes the narrator himself is lying in order to mislead the audience or convince himself of something.
Teddy’s very first scene sees him seasick throwing up in the bathroom of a ship and trembling at the sight of ocean water.
Much later, he says that he wants to reach the lighthouse and discover its secrets, even at the cost of his life. But quickly gives up when he realizes that he would have to swim in order to get there.
In all his dreams, water appears in one form or another (snow, rain, a lake) and is associated with gruesome images (like Rachel covered in blood, his wife turning into ashes and the frozen bodies of the concentration camp).
He never talks or even acknowledges this intense fear himself. It gets explained only when Dr. Cawley reveals his backstory: Andrew can’t stand the sight of water because he is still haunted by the memory of his own kids been drowned in a lake.
3- Andrew Laeddis
Teddy tells his partner the story of how a maintenance man named Andrew Laeddis killed his wife by setting the building where they live on fire. He claims that he accepted the case on Shutter Island for the sole purpose of finding this man.
He wants to find him, but not to kill him. His partner claims that if something similar had happened to him, he would want to take revenge on the man who ruined his life. But Teddy rebutts saying that he “has had enough of killing”.
So, if he didn’t came to the island to kill Laddis, what is he planning to do once he meets him? Hug him?
Teddy’s goals and priorities seem to change every 5 minutes for no good reason. First he wants to find Laeddis. Then he wants to leave the island. Then he wants to discover the truth. Then he wants to find Laeddis again.
Similarly, the “villain” of the story transforms according to Teddy’s changes of heart. Laedis is a monster that got away with multiple murders. The lead psychiatrist is a mastermind that uses patients for experiments. The whole facility is secretly run by communists who want to create “ghost soldiers”.
If the protagonist keeps going back and forth, changing his mind, taking actions that contradict his goals, using explanations that go against any logic, he might be an unreliable narrator. Or crazy. Or both.
Shutter Island does a great job by using the unreliable narrator as a tool.
Watching this movie, the audience is forced to engage because it’s bombarded with continuity errors and discrepancies. As soon as an audience member asks the question “Wait, is that lady drinking from an invisible glass?”, he’s hooked.
An unreliable narrator is a difficult but effective technique, it forces the audience to doubt the person that is telling the story, and by doing so, it makes them piece together the story on their own.