The Shutter Island rat scene
January 8, 2012 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Is the rat scene in Shutter Island realistic? Inside has total spoilers for the film.

I'm asking because I know many people felt cheated by the unreliable narrator, and the realism or non-realism of the rats seems kind of important in that respect.

The scene immediately follows his thinking he's seen his partner's corpse at the bottom of the cliff, and immediately precedes his meeting and long conversation with a non-existent person. So I feel like if the rat thing is unreal, then it's a clue that Rachel is also unreal - we have a chain of hallucinations of increasing magnitude.

But maybe that is realistic - the island is being pummelled by hurricane-type weather and maybe rats nest in cliff-sides like that and a combination of the tides and the storm have their den flooding and something like that could happen. That doesn't mean it's not a hallucination, but if it is potentially realistic then it's no longer a clue that Rachel isn't real.
posted by neuromodulator to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For those of us who haven't seen the movie (and aren't worried about spoilers), what do the rats do in the rat scene?
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I too would need a reminder of what "the rat scene" entailed, even though I both read the book and saw the movie.

As a general rule I would go with "unrealistic." The entire thing is essentially one big hallucinogenic dream, with only a very few small things that are "real." The unreality gets bigger and bigger as the movie progresses. Anything even remotely unusual, I would chalk up to that, yes.
posted by ErikaB at 11:22 AM on January 8, 2012

Saw it recently, I believe the rat scene is just a small hole in the cliff from which an obscene amount of rats emerge in seconds, think a clown car of rats. If there's more to it than that OP please correct me but I think that's it.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:28 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have no idea if the rat thing is possible, but I thought it was basically a given that Rachel is not real and "Teddy" is Andrew. Have you read this Screen Rant piece about ambiguity in the film (or lack thereof)?
posted by pourtant at 11:29 AM on January 8, 2012

Yes, pourtant, it is a given. I'm not suggesting Rachel is real. I'm asking if the rats are a clue that she's unreal, or irrelevant, basically.

Re: yellowbinder basically has it right.

Teddy is at the top of a cliff, looking for his partner. He sees, at the bottom of the cliff, where the waves are breaking, what looks like his partner's corpse, but could be frothy sea stuff (his partner was wearing white and I think they use some visual effects to make it slightly ambiguous). He climbs down and the body is gone. Minor hallucination.

Then when he turns to ascend the cliff again, approximately 200 rats pour out of the cliff side onto the surrounding rocks and more or less sit there. Again, hurricane conditions at seaside, high tide, etc. makes me think this is slightly plausible if they had a flooded nest but I don't know much about rat nesting.

Then he spots the glow of a fire in a cave, climbs to it, and has an extended conversation with a person who turns out later to not exist at all. Major hallucination.

So what I'm curious about is if the rats are a "medium hallucination" that bridges these other two scenes, and a clue that Rachel is a hallucination, or if that's plausible as legit animal behaviour.

Lastly, ErikaB, it's not exactly true, in the film, that the whole thing is a hallucinogenic dream. Maybe the book is different, and it's a given that Teddy (Andrew) is in a dream, but I think those two (or three) scenes are the only time the viewers are shown things that aren't real. Teddy believes lots of false things, but everything else that we're shown is real. We just interpret incorrectly when we assume Teddy is sane.

That's why I'm curious, essentially. Many people felt cheated by the fact that we're shown things that aren't real. This didn't bother me - the film worked, and I enjoyed it. But the most "objectionable" piece of hoodwinkery, for those who felt cheated, would be Teddy's extended and played-totally-as-straight conversation with Rachel (as compared to his hallucination of Mark Ruffalo's corpse, that has weird visual FX and is otherwise ambiguous). So while I'm sure Rachel isn't real (again, for emphasis), I'm curious if the rats are part of a chain of increasingly-realistic hallucinations that point towards the fact that he's out of his tree at that moment, or if that actually happens and it's not a hint as to what's going on.
posted by neuromodulator at 11:42 AM on January 8, 2012

Maybe the book is different, and it's a given that Teddy (Andrew) is in a dream

Sorry, I realize this reads differently than I intended. I meant them as separate items:

1/ Maybe the book is different in that the reader is presented with more false information than the film.

2/ Yes, it's clear in the film that Teddy is out of his mind.

And not as one item, as in "maybe the book is different and less ambiguous". They're both (book and film) unambiguous.

But besides those two or three scenes and his dreams (oh, and I think there's a point where he sees his wife and daughter when he blows up the car), what we're otherwise shown is the same as what Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley's characters are seeing.
posted by neuromodulator at 11:49 AM on January 8, 2012

Not seen the film but: I was once doing some urban exploration in an abandoned factory type of place. In one part we walked into a bit empty room with most of an old drop ceiling still in place. At some point one of us made a noise (the floor creaked or something) and the sound of distant buffalo erupted from the drop ceiling as a mess of rodents decided they didn't want to be anywhere near us. Watching them jump a two foot gap from below (and several steps back) was impressive but not the sort of thing they're ever going to put on Animal Planet.

That said, I think abandoned buildings are to rats what sea side cliffs are to birds. Make of that what you will.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:50 AM on January 8, 2012

The rats establish that DiCaprio's character is, indeed, crazy. Despite the overwhelming number of rats and impending bad weather, he continues down a dangerous path. As a viewer, we are put in the position of disagreeing with the actions of the protagonist, something that continues and builds until the climax. We're constantly reminded that DiCaprio's character is not making the logical, sane action.

What works so well from a narrative perspective, we are trained to believe that a good investigator actually would take DiCaprio's actions. They'd go down, despite the rats and the weather, besides sign saying they should just get out of Shutter Island while they can. Indeed, at the end of the rat scene, there's the conclusion that a tenacious investigator would expect, a payoff that matches the perils of the journey: an over the top conspiracy theory from a rebel scientist.

On Preview: Yes, the rats are not a realistic feature of a cliff side during a storm. The quantity and activity of such a large group of rats on an exposed cliff face simply does not happen, and even if it did, would be a big signal for us to stay away. If the rats feel the need to flee to safety despite the inherit dangers of a wet cliff side during a storm, perhaps we should not put ourselves in a similar situation.

So what I'm curious about is if the rats are a "medium hallucination" that bridges these other two scenes, and a clue that Rachel is a hallucination, or if that's plausible as legit animal behaviour.

I would not read this literally into it, I believe it is a narrative element that works on several levels, whether by indicating hallucinations or indicating poor decisions by the character.
posted by geoff. at 11:50 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it a bit like this?
posted by hot soup girl at 11:50 AM on January 8, 2012

Well, for those interested and with Netflix (I don't know if what's on Netflix Canada, which is streaming-only, directly corresponds with Netflix Instant whatever-it's-called in the states):

The sequence starts at 1:20:00. The shot of the corpse is about 1:20:47 (looks less ambiguous than I recall but compression artifacts make it slightly hard to discern). The rats start at 1:22:00.

It's less rats than that, hot soup girl, and they're fairly stationary.
posted by neuromodulator at 12:01 PM on January 8, 2012

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