Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island
2010
138 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Note - while I've avoided explicit plot details, I cannot guarantee that you, dear reader, will not deduce the film's secrets from the review below via context and insinuation. Thus - SPOILER WARNING.

In any good twist-and-turn thriller, there needs to be something for the audience to grasp onto other than said twists and turns. If the story and characters are merely clotheslines on which to hang periodic plot twists or a climactic reveal, the film basically descends into a waiting game. Why bother becoming emotionally invested or even paying attention to the onscreen events when anything and everything is just a series of clues or red herrings to a mystery that will be explained in the third act anyway? Shutter Island is a film that fails to exist outside of its puzzles. From the opening frame onward, you can sense that it's all about a lead up to a big reveal of some kind. Worse yet, it telegraphs its twists (big and small) so early that you immediately realize that, regardless of your theories, you really can't trust your own lying eyes.

A token amount of plot - It's 1954, and Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been sent to a mysterious mental hospital located on a remote island in Boston, Massachusetts. It seems that a deluded child-murderer named Rachel Solando has escaped from her locked cell and Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is eager to get her back. So the investigation begins, as the hard-boiled detective interviews various colorful characters (played by various colorful character actors whom I won't reveal) in pursuit of the truth. But as Teddy and Chuck investigate deeper, they discover that this asylum for the criminally insane may have some dark secrets, and that the disappearance of Solando may be part of a bigger conspiracy. As Teddy deals with his own past traumas, the mystery behind Dr. Cawley's seemingly benevolent treatment methods are slowly revealed, and the larger story at play begins to take shape.

That's all you need. The majority of the film unfolds in a manner befitting any number of haunted house genre pictures. Teddy is forced to deal with his own personal demons, and his time in the scary old hospital conjures of terrible memories of past trauma as well as questions as to what separates him from those locked away. Fair enough, I generally relish directors like Martin Scorsese playing around in the B-movie sandbox. Goodness knows it did wonders for Spike Lee, who scored his biggest hit (and made one of his very best films) with Inside Man. But the picture is hamstrung by its very premise. You know from the very beginning that all is not what it seems. And the film is presented is such an over-the-top, melodramatic manner, and every performance and every moment seems bathed in intentional artifice, that we quickly realize that nothing can be taken at face value. If we never know when we're being lied to, it's impossible to get involved on any real visceral or emotional level.

Since the big twist is telegraphed so early on, and several minor reveals are all-but noted with a yellow highlighter, not only do we know where the story is likely heading, we quickly realize that they cannot even believe our eyes or ears for much of the picture. When you know you're being duped in one way or another in nearly every scene, it's impossible to stay involved in the narrative. Why bother to pay attention if can't even trust that the story that's being told will even matter by the time the credits role? And since every moment and every character beat is either a clue or a false lead, there is no emotional hook in which to invest in the characters and the story. We also don't care because absolutely nothing makes sense leading up to the finale. When anything can happen and nothing is what it seems, then nothing is of consequence.

While the film has solid technical credits and a fine pedigree (aside from the director and fine cast, the film is based on a book by Dennis Lehane), the film fails as entertainment because we never know what's true and what's false, so we have no choice to presume that everything is fraudulent. Like an improv comedy that feels entirely staged or action sequences that are rendered in inadequate computer-generated effects, Shutter Island is a film that fails to entertain because it refuses to give the audience a reason to believe what they're seeing.

Grade: C

14 comments:

Kyle Leaman said...

SPOILER ALERT
While I see your point and see how this film can lead one there, I experienced it differently. Yes, many revelations seemed to play fast and loose with reality making it impossible to find reality. I think though that everything in the film supporting the reality of Teddy as the Marhsall investigating a wide-ranging conspiracy lacked hard evidence. As Kingsley says in the end, we never find surgery rooms, or actual Nazi's, only insinuations.

It became completely obvious for me when everything became focused on the light house. How on earth would this entire surgical process be housed in such a small building with no real way to get back and forth (it's on it's own mini island surrounded by rocks). The woman in the cave was (to me) clearly unbelievable in a 'hint hint' way.

Anyways, like I said, I definately see how a viewing of this film could lead you where you did. I do feel though that the twists and turns played into what I felt was the strongest and most entertaining aspect of this film. Seeing Teddy's world of paranoia through his eyes. Empathizing with how he connects the dots, suspects the institute, and so on. While (by the end) seeing how his world so loosely made sense in comparison with the reality of experience of the island.

Anonymous said...

I just seen this movie yesterday, awesome performance by Leonardo! Watch it here also Shutter Island

steambadger said...

***SPOILERS***

I really enjoyed this film for about an hour and a half -- until it became clear that Scorsese wasn't going to be able to avoid a completely absurd conclusion. The idea that Leo killed his wife and was actually an inmate at the asylum is, indeed, telegraphed too early; but, worse, nobody ever bothers to make it make sense. In the end, we’re left with a man with a unique and inexplicable form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which allows him to construct a rich and detailed alternate reality and inhabit it at will. His doctors don't find this particularly remarkable, and rather than try to figure it out, they want to lobotomize him, because he's extraordinarily violent -- the "most dangerous patient" on Shutter Island -- although we're never shown or even told about any horribly violent acts he's committed. Max von Sydow fingers the icepick.

Kindly Ben Kingsley has a solution, though – to avoid Max and his brain slicer, he gives the homicidal lunatic a gun, puts him on a fog-shrouded boat, and somehow induces his fantasy at it’s inception. Accompanied by his attending physician/partner/Sancho Panza, Leo returns to Shutter Island, where he's allowed to wander about at will (but thankfully, without the gun) for several days, hallucinating to beat the band, climbing about on dangerous cliffs, and exposed to a hurricane. This, for reasons we must take on faith, is supposed to cure him, and thus thwart the sinister lobotomist.

Remarkably, it works -- the Most Dangerous Patient manages to constrain his psychotic violence to a few rounds of fisticuffs, and leaves his fantasy behind. A few days later, though, he decides he'd like to be lobotomized after all, because he doesn't want to be a monster anymore (although, again, we're never told of anything particularly monstrous he's done.) Orderlies appear, Bearing the Instruments like medieval inquisitors, and the patient is escorted off to have his frontal lobe severed so that he can... well, who knows?

I find a sliver of hope in this mess – if Leo really IS Teddy Daniels, then the whole nonsensical tale of Andrew Laeddis makes sense. A few things seem to point to this conclusion: Mark Ruffalo calls him “Teddy”, for instance, as he’s being led to his doom; and the scene wherein “Laeddis” discovers his slaughtered family is so Hollywood-stylized that it seems to beg to be taken as a dramatization. I am assured, however, by people who’ve read the book, that this is not the case. Alas.

GStrick said...

Oh Mr. Medelson!

Had I but read your excellent review earlier I would never have gone to see "Shelter Island" yesterday.
It is one of the very few movies I have ever walked out of in my life, and you've perfectly enumerated the reasons.
If anything can happen and nothing can be taken at face value--why bother?
It was like an "artsy-fied" "Lost" episode.
Keep up the good work.

Sean said...

You are clearly the same person who can't stand films like fight club and usual suspects because you are way too hyperintelligent to get caught up in them. While I thought the movie was fairly obvious from the get go, it was entertaining to try to figure out what was real and what was a delusion and upon what reality it was based. You have no imagination and should probably only watch feel good romantic comedies that just hold your hand through the whole thing... also you clearly can't stand david lynch, because you don't know what to believe. Are you afraid to dream too?

Scott Mendelson said...

I saw The Usual Suspects before anyone had ever heard of it. It's still one of my favorite films of the 1990s. It and Fight Club (and The Sixth Sense and The Others) are movies that work regardless of whatever twists they have in store. They are compelling dramas with interesting characters that use their big reveals as sort of a bonus for those who were paying attention. Movies like Shutter Island and Surveillance exist solely for the sake of teasing the eventual climactic reveal. If you can guess the game early, you spend the rest of the picture just twiddling your thumbs.

The problem I had with Shutter Island is that I firmly believed that pretty much everything was a delusion on one level or another, so I couldn't take anything I saw at face value.

Daniel said...

I Just got back from the Minor Theater in my little college town, and i just had to search the web for closure after seeing Shutter Island. I earnestly enjoyed the film, but i was really hoping for the last hour that it wasn't all in his head. Then during the last 10 minutes, i came to terms that the ending was probably gonna be like cold water on a hardon, but i hoped and hoped throughout those agonizing last minutes that maybe, just maybe, the character i was rooting for, was going to redeem himself somehow or get something from this little carnival ride that they took us on. Its all in your mind, and my mind scoffed at the end of the film. I mean they don't even show him walking into any one building! I thought that they didn't have any lobotomies in the lighthouse? Why show it as the last scene? And before anyone is going to criticize my opinion, please do so, but don't make fun of me or my tastes, because that only proves that you're being mean to a stranger, and that you're wack haha! I'd still recommend it for people, aside from the way they decided to takes their twists and turns, and make fun of the audience. Check it out for yourselves!

michuk said...

Here is another nice Shutter Island review: http://queerdelys.filmaster.com/review/where-does-the-truth-lie/

Jason said...

The high level of craft and the very fine performance by DiCaprio cannot hide the fact that this is a thematically hollow genre exercise by a great filmmaker.

Read my review at http://cfilmc.com/shutter-island/

randomchutney said...

I'm often conscious of the tricks our mind can play on us and how we can sometimes become confused between reality and fantasy / imagination. small wonder it seems as we are yet to fully work out how the brain differentiates between the two! however, if i needed any reminding of this fact, the film 'shutter island' (2010) illustrated it very well.

martin scorsese's latest venture, set in 'a water-bound mental hospital housing the criminally insane' (rottentomatoes.com), was in my view a hopelessly sensational and ludicrously contrived film with more twists and turns than one could keep track of. it eventually left you feeling potentially unsure of anything in life let alone the film, which could have been unnerving if you hadn't walked out of the cinema or felt beyond caring by that point.

not exactly in the realm of 'the usual suspects' or 'the sixth sense' where you didn't quite know what to expect or what was coming but at least it all came together in the end and the audience didn't feel quite so hopelessly and deliberately manipulated...

michuk said...

Here is another nice Shutter Island review: http://queerdelys.filmaster.com/review/where-does-the-truth-lie/

GStrick said...

Oh Mr. Medelson!

Had I but read your excellent review earlier I would never have gone to see "Shelter Island" yesterday.
It is one of the very few movies I have ever walked out of in my life, and you've perfectly enumerated the reasons.
If anything can happen and nothing can be taken at face value--why bother?
It was like an "artsy-fied" "Lost" episode.
Keep up the good work.

Kyle Leaman said...

SPOILER ALERT
While I see your point and see how this film can lead one there, I experienced it differently. Yes, many revelations seemed to play fast and loose with reality making it impossible to find reality. I think though that everything in the film supporting the reality of Teddy as the Marhsall investigating a wide-ranging conspiracy lacked hard evidence. As Kingsley says in the end, we never find surgery rooms, or actual Nazi's, only insinuations.

It became completely obvious for me when everything became focused on the light house. How on earth would this entire surgical process be housed in such a small building with no real way to get back and forth (it's on it's own mini island surrounded by rocks). The woman in the cave was (to me) clearly unbelievable in a 'hint hint' way.

Anyways, like I said, I definately see how a viewing of this film could lead you where you did. I do feel though that the twists and turns played into what I felt was the strongest and most entertaining aspect of this film. Seeing Teddy's world of paranoia through his eyes. Empathizing with how he connects the dots, suspects the institute, and so on. While (by the end) seeing how his world so loosely made sense in comparison with the reality of experience of the island.

Daniel said...

I Just got back from the Minor Theater in my little college town, and i just had to search the web for closure after seeing Shutter Island. I earnestly enjoyed the film, but i was really hoping for the last hour that it wasn't all in his head. Then during the last 10 minutes, i came to terms that the ending was probably gonna be like cold water on a hardon, but i hoped and hoped throughout those agonizing last minutes that maybe, just maybe, the character i was rooting for, was going to redeem himself somehow or get something from this little carnival ride that they took us on. Its all in your mind, and my mind scoffed at the end of the film. I mean they don't even show him walking into any one building! I thought that they didn't have any lobotomies in the lighthouse? Why show it as the last scene? And before anyone is going to criticize my opinion, please do so, but don't make fun of me or my tastes, because that only proves that you're being mean to a stranger, and that you're wack haha! I'd still recommend it for people, aside from the way they decided to takes their twists and turns, and make fun of the audience. Check it out for yourselves!

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