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.