01
Mar
10

Shutter Island forgets logic, no one seems to care

As the credits rolled on Shutter Island, I set my half-empty popcorn tub aside, stood up and stretched, and filed slowly out with the rest of the audience. There was far less chatter than one usually hears from a departing crowd and, I suspect, many were lost in contemplation, just as I was– running through the film in their mind, trying to process it and decide whether they had liked it or not. I’d watched the film with a friend and yet neither of us spoke, not until long after we’d reached the car and exited the parking lot. There are three types of films that breed such intense contemplation: excellent films, terrible films, and flawed films. Shutter Island falls into the latter, sadly unable to add up to the sum total of its parts.

It’s an entertaining film, that much is certain– a complex psychological thriller with excellent acting (if a bit over the top at times) and more than a few Hitchcockian overtones, including an emotionally-scarred leading man, a beautiful blonde femme fatale, some grandiose camera work and long swooping crane shots,  and a score reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann.
These aspects of the film are suggestive of one film in particular, Vertigo. Both films feature a world-class director-actor pairing: Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio here. And both feature a detective, crippled by traumatic past events and haunted by a dead lover, desperately seeking some kind of redemption while searching for a lost woman. In fact, I was so struck by the similarities that I went home and watched my copy of Vertigo again, and noticed Martin Scorsese thanked as a key player in the film’s restoration.

Clearly the two films share much in common, but while Vertigo has established itself as a masterful example of the psychological thriller– and, indeed, as one of the greatest films ever made– Shutter Island falls short. I couldn’t help but feeling somehow cheated by the film, much as I did after watching The Usual Suspects, not merely because I had been taken in by the twist ending, but because I couldn’t have helped being taken in. Part of the enjoyment of watching a mystery is joining the protagonist along the way– sifting through the clues, analyzing characters and dialogue, and drawing conclusions. The conclusion of The Usual Suspects renders any such efforts null by revealing that the entire plot has been fabricated by the dude from K-Pax (Yeah, it’s a spoiler, the movie is 15 years old, if you haven’t seen it yet you deserve to have the ending ruined), and while Shutter Island’s twist doesn’t reduce the preceding storyline to outright fiction, it may just as well have by featuring a plot twist so ridiculously illogical that any rational (read: non-retarded) audience member couldn’t possibly have seen it coming– or, rather, they may have seen it coming, but would have dismissed it out of hand because it’s so dangerously unlikely.

They got one thing right, Kevin Spacey probably is a murderer

Thus I was left with an unsettling feeling– wowed by the near flawless technical skills on display and frustrated by the fact that I had just spent 2 and a half hours trying to unravel the mysteries of a film which had tricked me by essentially ignoring logic and expecting me to do the same. If you’ve yet to see Shutter Island, this would be the part where you want to stop reading. Go see it, I’d still recommend it over nearly everything else out right now, even if the final twist has left me a bit baffled. If you’ve seen it, or don’t give a shit about me going in depth into pivotal plot points, read on.

Vertigo too features a rather surprising plot twist, the discovery that Madeline (Kim Novak) is not dead and is in fact now living as Judy. However, this twist arrives at about the halfway point of the film, and the audience is made privy to the fact that Judy and Madeline are one in the same  a mere five minutes after Judy appears onscreen. The focus of the film thus ceases to be the unraveling of a mystery and instead becomes the unraveling mental state of its protagonist, Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart). Hitchcock doesn’t bother with any “Surprise!  I gotcha bitches! ” moments and instead builds a simmering tension and suspense as Scottie’s fixation on transforming Judy into Madeline becomes increasingly disturbing and manic.

Now, let’s imagine if Shutter Island took a similar turn at its midway point. Would it hold together as a film in the same way Vertigo does? Resoundingly no. And why? Because the twist ending here is analogous to a magic trick– distracting the audience temporarily so we don’t notice the squished bird hidden under the table (watch that film, by the way, if you’d like to see an example of a twist ending that works, and works brilliantly). If the guise of the twist is removed, and Daniels is revealed as Laeddis early on, the film falls to pieces from a logical standpoint and any sort of suspension of disbelief becomes absolutely impossible.

Just so everyone knows the score

For example, the audience is expected to believe that an inmate at a mental asylum for the criminally insane is first, taken off the island, then given free rein to move about as he pleased, allowed to interview other patients about their deepest psychological issues, let into the administrator’s home without guard, and then made to sleep in the same quarters as hospital staff. Now let’s keep in mind that this man:

A.) Is a known murderer with multiple jarring traumatic incidents in his past (Including a visit to a Nazi death camp, watching a soldier slowly bleed to death, and discovering the murder of his three children by his deranged wife)
B.) Is an extremely violent individual with a bad temper
C.) Is a former detective with keen observational skills, a former soldier with combat training, and a remarkably intelligent individual
D. Is no longer taking his medications and thus has difficulty distinguishing between his violent and disturbing hallucinations and reality
E. Blows up a car at one point (although people in the film seem only moderately perturbed by it). In the real world this is an extremely dangerous thing to do and a good way to accidentally kill innocent people
F. Had, just weeks before, kicked the ass of a fellow patient (The man who saved Watchmen in another brilliant performance) who had simply called him by his actual name.
G. Is found, by a hospital staffer, beating and strangling a patient
H. Is directly quoted by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the chief psychiatrist and administrator of the island, as being “the most dangerous patient we have”

There is, at one point in the film, an assembly of doctors who express such concern at the mere possibility that some Ward C patients might escape (in the event of a power failure) that they suggest chaining the patients to the floor, despite the fact that this may cause them all to drown. We must therefore assume– if the very people charged with the patients’ care would put them in harm’s way to prevent their escape–  that these patients are so incredibly violent and dangerous that their escape would spell certain harm to the others on the island. How dangerous then, must Andrew Laeddis be if he is “the most dangerous” among them? And how the hell does it make even the tiniest bit of goddamn sense to let him loose to do as he pleases on the island?  Come On!

"Don't mention the plot holes"

This is just one of a number of lapses in logic that occur in the film. Hey, here’s a few more:

-In order for this “therapeutic roleplay” to work, literally everyone on the island must be in on it, including the patients. I still remember vividly how goddamn impossible it was to get my friend Fareed to say his lines properly in our high school video projects, and he was just a hyper teenager with too much sugar in his system, not a clinically-insane convicted killer.

-The note that reads ‘Rule of Four. Who is 67?’ is yet another problem. Rule of four is explained away at the end: Daniels is Laeddis, Rachel is Dolores. Okay, fine. The note is meant to serve as a nice bit of foreshadowing for us simple moviegoers, hinting that Daniels will end up as patient 67, which he sort of does since, as Dr. Cawley says, “The 67th patient is you, Andrew.” That’s all well and good, except that he isn’t: If Rachel Solando doesn’t exist then Laeddis is patient 66 and the note isn’t foreshadowing at all. It isn’t much of anything, really, it’s meaningless, just another crap McGuffin that makes no sense. Are we detecting a theme here?

-Lobotomies in the lighthouse? Seriously? I know lighthouses have taken on a sort of creepy connotation in the last few years– and the one here does look genuinely foreboding– but the logistics of performing complicated brain surgery (i.e. the small amount of space and the difficulty in transporting patients and equipment up and down narrow metal stairs, not to mention the fact that the goddamn thing is surrounded by 100 yards of water) all but preclude a lighthouse as a viable place to conduct lobotomies, or really any kind of operation, or even any kind of activity not directly associated with typical lighthouse duties. I mean, they really aren’t designed to house medical operation rooms. You know what are equipped for that kind of thing though? Fucking mental asylums!  Yarg.

Look out! It's got a gun!

The worst part is, these are all easy fixes:
-Armed guards are kept with Daniels at all times, which can be justified to him as being a rule of the island done for his protection. There, now he can’t harm anyone and the roleplay is slightly more believable
-Daniels interviews patients who act crazy, forget that they’ve been coached, and let slip that Solando doesn’t exist– but, hey, they’re crazy so why should he believe them anyway?
-Remove the note, it does nothing for the film
-The creepy lighthouse becomes creepy abandoned hospital wing that may or may not still be in use

That at least helps smooth out some of the more outlandish holes in the plot. Then you simply move the reveal to the 3/4 mark of the film– allowing the audience to know that Daniels is one of the patients, but leaving him still in the dark– and add in a real mystery for him to solve (a murder or an actual disappearance) once the fake Solando reappears. We then get to watch as Daniels, in a deteriorating mental state (still having hallucinations and trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined), investigates both this actual mystery while continuing with the roleplay. As things come to a head, Daniels has his breakthrough and realizes he is Laeddis. We then watch as he continues on, struggling to solve the actual mystery with the knowledge that he is in fact a murderer. Finally, he solves the case and earns some semblance of redemption before regressing again back into Daniels. It’s not perfect, but I feel like it’s an improvement. And that shit took me five minutes. I have to think Marty Scorsese could’ve done better with months to work on it, the guy made Goodfellas for Christ’s sake.

And yet the plot holes remain, and thus the superficial similarities between Shutter Island and Vertigo remain just that, and instead of a masterpiece we’re left with a rather orthodox (albeit well-made) Hollywood thriller. And that’s fine if that’s what you’re after. Me, I’ll stick with Hitch.

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