The film was not a complete failure. It looked beautiful and the acting was generally good. Nearly all of the problems I have with Shutter Island stem from the script, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Laeta Kalogridis. As such, my discussion of the film will include a whole lot of spoilers. If you intend to see Shutter Island, stop reading now. Go see it and form your own opinion. A lot of critics enjoyed it and I’m in the minority for disliking it. However, I can tell you this much: I personally think you’d be better off saving your money and seeing something else. Hit the jump for the review.
Last week, I read Scott Tobias’s review of Shutter Island for The Onion’s A.V. Club. He liked it, and because I trust his reviews, I was happy. You see, I had been awaiting this movie ever since I saw the trailer. It relieved me to hear that it was, in fact, good. Shortly thereafter, Spencer pointed me toward A.O. Scott’s review of the film for the New York Times. I often disagree with A.O. Scott and presumed that his negative take on Shutter Island was further proof of Scott and I having different cinematic tastes. I was wrong.
Scott’s review didn’t prepare me for the gaping plot holes, each of which hungrily swallowed up my patience and the time I committed to sitting in the theater. This is an especially notable criticism because I love ambiguous movies. I’m happy to have matters unresolved and chew on them in the days following my viewing, guessing what one thing or another could possibly mean. (For example, Mulholland Drive is my favorite movie.) But despite its initial ambiguities, almost constant misdirection, and overall weirdness, Shutter Island throws away any chances it had at being an thought-provoking, enticingly open-ended mystery film with its big twist: The audience learns that U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who arrived on the titular island to investigate the disappearance of a female mental patient, is actually himself a patient. The entire plot — with its red herrings and suspicious characters and such — is actually an elaborate play performed by the hospital’s staff in an effort to push Daniels to acknowledge his delusion. He is not Teddy Daniels but Andrew Laeddis — the names are anagrams — who shot his mentally ill wife (Michelle Williams) because she drowned their children, creating such trauma that he escaped into an elaborate fantasy in which he was actually the one avenging his wife’s death at the hands of someone else. The supposed escapee, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), is actually a nurse at the hospital playing a role. Teddy created Rachel’s entire persona — her name is also an anagram, in this case made from the dead wife’s maiden name, Dolores Chanal — and transferred his wife’s crimes onto her. The ruse works, but only momentarily. In the end, DiCaprio’s character slides back into his U.S. marshal persona. It is implied in the end that he is lobotomized, as the hospital staff have no other way to rehabilitate him.
Aside from the fact that the film employs one of my most hated thriller movie plot elements — multiple personalities, second only to serial killers in terms of being clichéd and implausible — it also asks the audience to buy the notion that the doctors at a hospital for the criminally insane would allow DiCaprio’s character, an inmate with a history of violence, to run around the place playing cops and robbers. Yes, he’s accompanied by his “partner” (Mark Ruffalo, whose character is actually a doctor playing a fellow marshal for the purposes of the ruse — surprise!), but DiCaprio’s character gets to interact with other inmates one-on-one — sometimes antagonizing them, sometimes in the presence of sharp implements. He also leads Ruffalo’s character into dangerous situations, with the latter just dumbly indulging the former’s fantasy and going along for the ride, even when the situation would seem to necessitate self-preservation.
But here’s the real kicker: The majority of all this unfolds during a massive storm that literally rips trees from the ground and shuts down the hospital’s security system. You’d think at this point any reasonable person would be see that these conditions make for a bad time to let a mental patient wander as he pleases. (“Hey, the storm of the century is brewing. I saw a guy leading animals into a boat two-by-two. But Mr. Crazy, over there? Yeah, let him go play in the forest.”) But DiCaprio’s character continues in his fake investigation, toddling into a wooded graveyard because, in his malfunctioning head, this place would be the last place anyone would think to look for Rachel Solando. (That’s almost a quote, by the way.)
All this was confusing at the time. I asked myself “Why the hell are they going there?” but figured that the movie would yield some decent answer. No. The only explanation the audience gets for this and many other scenes is that the expedition is being led by a disordered person. It makes sense, sort of. The reason Di Caprio’s character had such bad ideas was that he had all manner of crazy in his brain. But ultimately his little quests seem pointless, given the movie’s ending. It’s like the worst ever episode of Lost, if the show decided to make all the island weirdness the product of the hallucinations of a still-institutionalized Hurley.
For the record, some of the instances of illogic in the film:
- The part of the mental institution where the most severely disturbed patients reside was originally a fortress built during the Civil War, we’re told. I may be giving away my ignorance about the history of the American Civil War here, but why would any side in the conflict need to base soldiers on an island eleven miles off the east coast?
- Teddy is a terrible detective. In fact, most of his clues about the case come to him through dreams — including that Rachel is still in the island, though the audience eventually learns that this isn’t true. When he talks to actual people, he ends up either infuriating them (as he does to one male inmate) or offending them (as he does to a German doctor he suspects of being a Nazi). And yes, his awkwardness as a detective can be explained by the fact that Teddy is insane, but this explanation also means the interrogations are ultimately meaningless inasmuch as the ramblings of any disordered person shouting on the street corner don’t necessarily mean anything.
- At one point, Teddy blows up the car of one of the senior doctors. This achieves no discernible affect aside from allowing him to view a vision of his wife and his daughter being consumed by the blast. Though it would theoretically be a good diversion, it only calls the attention of the hospital guards.
- Teddy believes that sinister brain surgery is being performed in the island’s lighthouse, even though the structure seems remote and inaccessible enough that there would be no reason to perform such experiments there. The building is awkwardly narrow and any the tiny rooms in it can only be reached via a rickety spiral staircase. Again, this notion can be accredited to crazy people logic, but the movie spends enough time hinting that Teddy is correct that the final reveals serve only to prove the audience wrong. It’s a mean “Nope! Got you, stupid!” when the audience previously had no choice but to assume that Teddy is right.
- Teddy has a migraine, and, as such, he becomes hypersensitive to light. No one thinks to close the curtains to protect him from the lightning storm outside… because of medical science?
- At one point, Ruffalo’s character gives Teddy a piece of paper that proves crucial to the “investigation,” but Teddy pockets it and refuses to read it — and learn the true nature of his existence — until later, for no real reason other than that it would be more dramatic to do so later.
My friend Leia pointed out that the ending would have been better if the audience had been given any reason to believe that the conclusion — that Teddy is crazy and that everything was fake — was, in fact, not the case and that the hospital staff had managed to convince Teddy that he was crazy. If Teddy had been right — if Rachel Solando had been made to vanish through sinister means and if the Shutter Island staff was covering up some seriously immoral medical experiments — then the ending would be especially tragic: A good man would have been silenced and misdeed would have been allowed to continue. But this isn’t the case. In the end, there is no real villain, no real dramatic conflict. The nice doctors have tried but failed to help the nice but misguided man.
I was not happy when I left the theater. I felt like I’d put my time into a movie that could have been good but turned out to be bad because it jerked me around in a bad possible way. A Dallas-style “It was all a dream!” conclusion that nullifies everything we had seen would have been worse, I guess. But this ending has more or less the same effect in that none of what leads up to it means much in the end — it’s all either role play or hallucination. A well-written twist is the one the audience should have seen coming. And yes, hints are dropped in the film’s opening scenes that Teddy, stepping off the ferry and onto Shutter Island, is a threat enough that the facility’s armed guards are antsy. But ultimately the whole plot is one big, overripe red herring in a way that even a sharp viewer shouldn’t anticipate, unless he’s accustomed to having his intelligence insulted.
It pains me to say this, but even in respect to Scorsese’s oeuvre, I would have been better off re-watching The Ring, a PG-13-rated but altogether scarier movie about a sinister island rife with similarly spooky water, fire and electricity imagery. Pretty thought it may have been, Shutter Island was a failure, and I’m tempted to say that more people might agree that this is the case had the director been anyone less revered.
I’m at a loss. The trailer for Shutter Island was good. Why couldn’t they have just made the movie like the trailer?