When you write about a movie that's just come out, you have to make the call as to whether you want to discuss key plot points or not, because on one hand, you don't want to spoil the experience for others (particularly if you're telling them to go see it). On the other... there's not much you can say about the thematic meat of the movie if you can't discuss what happens. So! Considering that this an adaptation of a book people may have already read, and that the ending isn't all that hard to guess--I'm going to go ahead and discuss the whole thing behind the cut. However, for those of you who want to stay unspoiled, I will just say that the music drove me out of my mind. It was this heavy-handed DUN! DUN! DUNNN!!!--it reminds me vaguely of the music that Scorsese used in the Cape Fear remake, but don't hold me to that--that seemed to take the place of the movie actually being scary. Hell, the movie opens with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo being driven up the long road to the asylum (DUN! DUN! DUNNN!!!) and through the forbidding gates (DUN! DUN! DUNNN!!!) and up to the happy, colorful little garden in front of the main building (DUN! DUN! DUNNN!!!). I really would have liked to see what Scorsese could have done with, say, a nice unnerving silence instead of the SCA!RY!NOW! strings.
On to the major, major spoilers.
Seriously, the whole thing now.
So the premise is that it's 1954 and DiCaprio is a U.S. marshal who goes to this island to figure out how a female patient at an asylum for the severely violently criminally insane basically just evaporated out of her room. The twist is that he's insane. He is, in fact, a patient himself there; "Rachel Solando" never existed. I had been accidentally spoiled by people who had already read the book--all I knew was "He's actually insane"--and so I knew just enough to want to find out what was actually going on, but not face-punch the movie in the process. Because, seriously, if I had not known that there was a Shyamalan-level twist to this movie, I would have hurt someone by the time I got to it, in no small part because the movie seems like it would be incredibly frustrating if you thought that everything happening was meant to be taken at face value. "Rachel" tells DiCaprio at one point that the reason he's having hallucinations is because the asylum doctors are spiking the aspirin, food, drinks and cigarettes they give him, so you as the viewer can get back on the hook of "Oh! It is possible that this is all real and the past traumas that haunt him are a red herring and he's having flashbacks and migraines because they're trying to poison him and it really IS all a cover-up experimentation conspiracy!" And then at the end of the movie you realize that she must have been a hallucination. The thing is, though--things happen in the asylum, interactions take place, that are not internally consistent with the idea that Teddy Daniels has never been there before. If you're listening, you'll notice that other characters mention things about him that they couldn't have possibly known if he really were "Teddy Daniels," a stranger. And because I knew something was up, I kept picking up on that and being really glad I didn't want to tear my hair out just then. Because, seriously, hundreds of rats pouring out of a tiny seaside cliffhole does not just happen. In fact, I guess it's possible that you could see the twist coming a mile away anyway. I personally would have started to suspect it when Teddy finds a cryptic note: "Who is 67?" And the moment we find out that the number refers to the 66 patients--thus, who is the unaccounted-for 67th?--I wanted to yell out, "IT'S YOU, DUMBASS." (Of course, that's not fair, because movie characters don't know they're in a movie.) And I knew when that one patient--Mrs. Kearns?--got all squirrelly, didn't want to talk about an absent doctor, and came up with a way to make Teddy's partner leave the table, that Teddy's partner would turn out to be the doctor. I don't know--maybe it's because I'm a writer, and I can't help but watch a movie like one.
It's really well done, though, and I like how the backgrounds had an unreal quality to them, particularly the sea at the beginning and the passing greenery when Teddy's in the car with the warden. Well, except for the music, which drove me nuts. And other than the music, there is one huge, gigantic problem with the movie, and it is: the entire premise. Let me get this straight: you have a former U.S. marshal who is now violently insane after trauma in his past, and he's "the most dangerous patient" in the whole place because of his law enforcement training and military experience, so... you're going to set him loose on the island for two days to do whatever he wants? "The greatest role-play in psychiatric treatment" is one of those setups that's great for a protagonist on a journey of self-discovery, but does not make any sense at all from a professional health standpoint--not in terms of the safety or the rights of the other patients. You're going to let him interrogate other patients? He torments one of them and nearly kills another--you let him run around wherever he wants and "sneak" into the Scary Ward of Scary Naked Scariness? Which now I'm not sure was real? But he had to have really talked to that guy in some capacity, but maybe it looked different and less filthy-medieval in a reality we didn't see and I DON'T EVEN KNOW, OKAY. And wait, if "Chuck" was trying to get "Teddy" to face reality, why was he telling him there was a conspiracy? Why was he telling him to get off the island, when he knew that wasn't possible? To drive him to the final confrontation at the lighthouse? Where Teddy totally could have fallen onto the rocks and DIED? And then after Teddy knocks out a guard, the head doctor actually asks him, very sadly, "How badly did you hurt him?" What kind of doctors ARE you people? There's a point where the setup is so ridiculous from the perspective of, you know, logic, that you just have to throw up your hands and go, okay, look, it's a story, the point is not the other people in it but rather what's going on inside this one guy's head.
There are a few great scenes in the movie, though, like the one where Head Doctor (Sir, as I hear he insists he be called) Ben Kingsley and Dr. Partner Mark Ruffalo are trying to get Teddy to understand what's real--the grand dénouement of the great roleplay--and Teddy is fighting it, because that's the point of a criminal cover-up conspiracy, right? To discredit you by making you think you're crazy, and if he really is a U.S. marshal investigating a criminal conspiracy, he's got to get out of there before they lobotomize their little law enforcement problem away. So he's got to fight it, and there was genuinely a point where I wondered if I'd heard the twist correctly--maybe it was going to play out differently. But they keep working on him, and the scene keeps going, and it's like you can actually, finally feel reality turn on its axis in this guy's head. Another one is a bizarre little dialogue between Teddy and Hard-Bitten Warden Ted Levine (there are all kinds of unexpected one-scene cameos in the movie--Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley), and I'm not sure if I find this conversation more disturbing before or after you find out that it's all a game. (You know that warden--a man in charge of the facility's security--spent the whole movie being all like "ROLEPLAY MY ASS.")
My point here, though, is that I think it does help to go into the movie knowing that it's an illogical nightmare, rather than trying to sit there and figure out what the hell is going on and how the hell it could be going on. I can't imagine how many handfuls of hair I would have been pulling out if I didn't know, and even then I still assumed that the Patricia Clarkson character was real, and sat there trying to figure out how she intended to live in hiding on a bare rock of an island she couldn't leave--where was she going to get food? So not having to sit there and wonder, "How does Max von Sydow know so much about Teddy? How did Jackie Earle Haley know he was married? WHY ARE THERE HUNDREDS OF RATS ON THE CLIFF? DO THEY LIVE IN THAT HOLE? BUT IT'S THE SIZE OF A SHOEBOX! WHAT DO THEY DO THERE? DO THEY EAT FISH? ARE THEY SEA RATS???," I was just able to hand-wave it and go, "Well, he's crazy, so it'll all come out in the wash," which, I feel, improved my viewing experience 150%. In other words, I got to go ahead and skip to the "second viewing" experience, if you see what I mean. And I'd still like to have an actual second viewing, now that I've seen the whole thing and know the entire back story (the seasickness at the beginning takes on a new meaning, for example). What I'm saying--GOD, it's taking me forever to get around to this--is that Shutter Island is not actually about a mystery or a cover-up or even a shock twist. The heart of the movie is summed up in the very last line: "Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?" It's about what's going on in Teddy's head, why he chooses the defense mechanisms that he does, and why he can't let go of them. That's what makes it an interesting movie. And you can focus on that better, and the movie is a more rewarding experience, if you get the twist out of the way ahead of time.
One more thing: I really got the feeling that the Creepy Asylum portions of this movie desperately wanted to be Silence of the Lambs, and Shutter Island is just not. Partly because "asylum horror" isn't really what it's about--it's about the horrors in Teddy's head, not jump-scares in the grimy dark--but also because you can't beat that movie at its own game. To be fair, the spectre of Silence of the Lambs is going to hang over any other film with a grimdark asylum set for many years to come. I don't know--maybe I'm just seeing things, because that is one of my favorite movies, and a lot of things are going to remind me of it, and you know, Shutter Island did grab Ted Levine, and...
After involuntarily pushing back the release date of this film to February for financial reasons, Paramount Pictures intentionally set the release date to five days away from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in hope that it could walk home with several Oscars.
Good luck with that, kids.
ETA: rockgeisha makes an interesting point about the ending.