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Shuttered

  Shutter Island
Dennis Lehane
William Morrow, 2003
Rating: 3.3
 

Posted: June 17, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

M. Night Shyamalan, you've got a lot to answer for.

Ever since your film The Sixth Sense became a smash hit, it seems popular culture has been deluged with shaggy-dog stories in which everything you think you know about the main character is violently upended in the last few minutes. In fact, everything the main character thought he or she knew about him or herself gets tossed out the window as well.

Here's the problem with this approach: It's very tricky to pull off. Oh, any moron (no offense) can dream up a story in which a guy figures out he's not what he thought he was. But it's all too easy for this gimmick to overpower the story. Worse, it's not hard at all for this particular gimmick to render a story irrelevant.

Let's take Shutter Island as a case in point. It's a radical departure for acclaimed writer Dennis Lehane, whose series of novels about blue-collar Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro established him as a first-class storyteller, using the detective idiom to construct brutally violent and unflinching explorations of our darker instincts. His last work, the best-selling Mystic River, mined similar terrain: It's a stand-alone tale about three childhood friends and a bond between them that carries serious and deadly repercussions into their adult lives. Like those books, Shutter Island deals with the killer inside all of us, that barely-suppressed monster lurking beneath humanity's cultivated veneer of civility.

But despite its thematic similarities to Lehane's earlier works, Shutter Island far removed from either of those worlds: It takes place in the '50s, on an island that houses a hospital-slash-prison for the criminally insane. Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall still mourning the death of his wife from two years before, is assigned to investigate an escape from the hospital. On the ferry that takes him from Boston to the island, Daniels makes the acquaintance of his brand-new partner, Chuck Aule. Once the pair arrives at the island, they're presented with that most reliable of staples: the locked room mystery. How did Rachel Solando, a woman imprisoned for murdering her own children, make it out of her room, past several guards and off of the premises? The hospital's staff proves perversely -- maybe even purposefully -- unhelpful, and as twist piles atop twist, Teddy considers the prospect that his own ulterior motive for coming to Shutter Island -- Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist who set the fire that killed Teddy's wife, is held here -- may have made him a threat to the hospital administrators, who may very well be conducting abhorrent experiments on the dangerous criminals locked away in the secluded Ward C. Once Chuck disappears, Teddy has to face the grisly possibility that the staff refuses to let him off the island alive.

The change of milieu is initially jarring, but Lehane proves a competent thriller writer regardless of the setting or genre. And he unspools his tense narrative with a minimalist's flair for withholding details. It's a tribute to Lehane's skill that we empathize with Teddy despite the fact that we're continually reminded of just how little we know about him. And Lehane seeds his pages with crumbs of clues that scratch at the back of the reader's mind without giving too much away too soon. Which isn't to say that you don't see the final plot twist -- or at least a flickering glimmer of it -- coming at least a hundred pages before it unfolds: You most certainly do. But even then, Lehane keeps things murky enough to make you wonder, and the plot takes a red herring turn or two to throw you off the track before it eventually confirms your worst suspicions.

About that climax, M. Night: Yes, it's affecting. Yes, it's well-handled, even given the fact that you figure it out beforehand. But when Teddy finds out, in classic thriller fashion, that everything he believes is a lie, the whole book falls apart like a too-delicate flan. When Bruce Willis's character reaches a similar conclusion at the end of The Sixth Sense, or when Nicole Kidman reaches much the same conclusion at the end of The Others, these revelations don't undermine what's come before. But Teddy's wrenching discovery invalidates everything -- and I do mean everything -- that's come before. Teddy's whole experience is an elaborate hoax (and I'm fairly confident I'm not giving too much away by saying that), and thus our emotional involvement with him is rendered null and void.

(Spoiler alert: Plot giveaway ahead.) It's one thing to be tricked by a clever writer who keeps pulling the carpet out from under you. It's another altogether to learn that you've been manipulated into caring about something that didn't happen, for someone -- several someones, actually -- that didn't exist. (Okay, we all know that no fictional characters really exist; don't split hairs here.) Lehane tries to go for the twist ending you've turned into a franchise, Mr. Shyamalan, but he fails, and spectacularly, because he doesn't understand the subtle difference between a protagonist learning he's been tricked and a protagonist learning that he is a trick. Your last two films, the wildly uneven Unbreakable and the frustratingly illogical Signs, didn't quite cross that line, but they laid a groundwork that may cause many readers to accept Lehane's preposterous conclusion at face value. That's fine; it's their right as consumers to be entertained, even by as hollow a manipulation as Shutter Island. But for those readers who don't enjoy having their investment of time and intellect, over the course of 300 pages, callously and/or amateurishly tossed aside, Mr. Shyamalan, you make a pretty handy scapegoat.

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