Shutter Island may be packed with too many flashbacks and plot twists, but critics say that director Martin Scorsese succeeds in crafting a ghastly, psychologically disturbing world and elevating the pulpy, B-movie thriller of the '50s to high art.
The film, which opens today, is Scorsese's first feature since he (finally) won an Oscar for The Departed. Based on the book by Dennis Lehane, the film is set in 1954, when U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, who kept the fake Boston accent) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are sent to an asylum on an island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients. Officially, they're on Shutter Island to find Rachel Soldano (Emily Mortimer), who was committed for drowning her three children, and has escaped from a locked, windowless cell. Secretly, Teddy also wants to look into reports that human experiments are being carried out on the island.
Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the psychiatrist who runs the asylum, won't let the marshals look at hospital files, so they're forced to conduct interviews with the patients, one of whom is the man Teddy believes is responsible for setting the fire Teddy's wife (Michelle Williams) died in. During the investigation, Teddy is plagued by migraines and memories of his wife and his service in World War II, in which he helped liberate Dachau. When a hurricane hits, the asylum's walls crumble and Teddy is trapped on the island with the inmates.
Critics agree that Scorsese creates a suspenseful, disturbing atmosphere filled with secret rooms, ghostly visions, and mental patients run amok, but some say that unlocking the secrets of the island is complicated enough without numerous flashbacks to Teddy's wife and the Nazi death camp. Reviewers complain that the second half of the film is rushed and "bogged down in large chunks of narrative explanation, and though all of the film's A-list actors turn in good performances, some question why Scorsese keeps casting DiCaprio as an "anguished but streetwise tough guy" when he "still seems like a pudding-faced little boy, alternately sullen and giddy, a little too eager to be loved."
Below, the reviews:
You may read reviews of Shutter Island complaining that the ending blindsides you. The uncertainty it causes prevents the film from feeling perfect on first viewing. I have a feeling it might improve on second. Some may believe it doesn't make sense. Or that, if it does, then the movie leading up to it doesn't. I asked myself: OK, then, how should it end? What would be more satisfactory? Why can't I be one of those critics who informs the director what he should have done instead?
Oh, I've had moments like that. Every moviegoer does. But not with Shutter Island. This movie is all of a piece, even the parts that don't appear to fit. There is a human tendency to note carefully what goes before, and draw logical conclusions. But — what if you can't nail down exactly what went before? What if there were things about Cawley and his peculiar staff that were hidden? What if the movie lacks a reliable narrator? What if its point of view isn't omniscient but fragmented? Where can it all lead? What does it mean? We ask, and Teddy asks, too.
Expert, screw-turning narrative filmmaking put at the service of old-dark-madhouse claptrap, Shutter Island arguably occupies a similar place in Martin Scorsese's filmography as The Shining does in Stanley Kubrick's. In his first dramatic feature since The Departed, Scorsese applies his protean skill and unsurpassed knowledge of Hollywood genres to create a dark, intense thriller involving insanity, ghastly memories, mind-alteration and violence, all wrapped in a story about the search for a missing patient at an island asylum.
Scorsese has given himself a film student's puzzle: Try to make a '50s-era thrill ride with today's techniques and technology. One senses his childlike delight behind every camera move and jump cut. As his audience squirms, he's in movie heaven... Scorsese is in full control of all three rings of this cinematic circus. Every lesson he learned, from Alfred Hitchcock to Don Siegel, is on display. Nearly every camera move is fraught with excitement. The music, costumes, props and the many rooms and halls of this fortress-prison are designed for maximum emotional impact. After finally getting that long-sought Oscar for The Departed, perhaps Scorsese figures it's time to have a bit of fun. He isn't asking to be taken seriously here. This isn't Taxi Driver or GoodFellas or even Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. It comes closest in his oeuvre to Cape Fear, but with a more commercial instinct... It's a pleasure to experience Scorsese as a circus master. One just hopes he doesn't continue in this vein.
Production design maestro Dante Ferretti's island is a rugged symbolist mythscape, pocketed with hidden places: soothsayers' sea caves, Ward C, a squat Civil War–era fort where the most violent offenders are kept in a Goya madhouse, and, beyond it, the ultimate locked door-to the lighthouse! Scorsese's return to his Roger Corman AIP roots is an object lesson in the proximity of high and low culture-Shutter Island is lousy with modernist references, soundtracked by avant-garde 20th-century composers, pretentious in the best Pulp-y tradition. 138 minutes is dangerously epic for a talky thriller, but you forget the time and even whether the plot makes sense-and if you don't notice, it doesn't matter. Since more attention has gone into filigreeing details into each scene than worrying about the way they'll fit together, the rattletrap engages you moment-to-moment, even as the overall pacing stops and lurches alarmingly.
While it's clear Scorsese is having great fun tightening the screws at every turn, some of the psychological tension that should have the crackle and shock of electricity in a thriller like this is lost in the crowd. There is always a sense that Teddy's running out of time, and for a while we don't know exactly why. Once we do, Scorsese sets about tidying things up a bit too fast, like a college professor who knows he's got to let the class out, so let's just get through this, shall we. Whether it's a rushed dénouement or a tendency to overindulge in delusions, the flaws are never enough to do permanent damage to the film. Ultimately, Scorsese has given us a new noir classic, though watching Di- Caprio's Teddy twist in the wind while his mind unravels would be satisfying enough.
In Shutter Island, Mr. Scorsese's 21st narrative feature and his most enigmatic, the director has made multiple movies from Dennis Lehane's best-selling novel of the same title: The one you see the first time, and the one(s) you see the second. Such claims can be made about other films, of course-Hitchcock's Vertigo, for instance, which the Mr. Scorsese refers to here more than once. But for all the immediacy and seemingly disposable pulp in its fiction, Shutter Island requires multiple viewings to be fully realized as a work of art. Its process is more important than its story, its structure more important than the almost perfunctory plot twists it perpetrates. It's a thriller, a crime story and a tortured psychological parable about collective guilt. But in the end, Shutter Island is the cinematic equivalent of a Joseph Cornell box, a world of appropriated ingredients given new meaning through their combination and juxtaposition. It won't be a beloved movie. It will inspire doctoral dissertations. And while this news may not bring unbridled joy to the folks at Paramount Pictures, let them be consoled by the thought that it possesses a kind of obsessive perfection.
Is there more to Shutter Island, though, than its steady visual/tonal craftsmanship and increasingly helter-skelter plot twists? What we want from this movie, I think, is a tricky and sophisticated mental-ward thriller that seduces us into a pleasurable vertigo of uncertainty. What we get is a tale dotted with vague portents of violence, ''heavy'' themes (the ethics of psychotropic drugs, the spectre of nuclear war), and surreal images of Teddy's memories of his wife (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire set by a negligent superintendent. The super may now even be a patient. As if the movie didn't have enough backstory, Teddy is also a WWII veteran haunted by flashbacks to the liberation of the Dachau death camp. On paper, Shutter Island is a nicely convoluted puzzle - The Shining with an extra helping of insanity. But Scorsese serves Lehane's puzzle more than he makes it his own. His style is like visual frosting laid on top of a maze, as the film invites us to spend a plodding two hours and 18 minutes figuring out the method to its madness. Shutter Island holds you, but it doesn't grip you. It's as if Scorsese had put his filmmaking fever on psychotropic drugs.
When focused on the insane asylum, the gloomy story - a Hitchcockian take on Dennis Lehane's novel - is unnerving and unrelenting. But it loses steam when it meanders into flashbacks, and a pat conclusion doesn't help. The denouement gets bogged down in large chunks of narrative explanation, presented in a strange blend of the overwrought and the obvious, undercutting the powerfully frightening scenes that went before. Also, a too-long and too-grisly climactic scene plunges what had been an enjoyable psychological thriller/horror hybrid into something far more dark and disturbing. As invested as we are in the agonized character superbly etched by DiCaprio, the twist feels both expected and convoluted. Still, despite its flaws, Shutter Island is worth seeing for the palpably nightmarish and gothic world conceived by Scorsese.
Scorsese struggles to bring Teddy's psychological combustibility and the movie's historical terror to coherent or resonant life. Some of the problem is that despite the luridness and gore, the film maintains a pristine, suffocating atmosphere. Even in a work of fraught romantic oppression like 1993's The Age of Innocence or with a strange, depressive allegory like 1999's underrated Bringing Out the Dead, Scorsese's filmmaking managed to descend into a visceral sort of madness. Serenity doesn't suit him. He seems medicated. Some of the trouble continues with his star. DiCaprio is hobbled by another shaky Boston accent, and his endless adolescence keeps him from being a credible 1950s cop and family man. He works as hard here as he always does, but this time it's like Holden Caulfield acting out his mental hospital years. Teddy turns out to be a sort of marionette. But there's nothing fun about DiCaprio allowing other people to pull his strings.
And the movie's central dramatic problem - the unstable boundary between the reality of Shutter Island and Teddy's perception of it - becomes less interesting as the story lurches along. You begin to suspect almost immediately that a lot of narrative misdirection is at work here, as MacGuffins and red herrings spawn and swarm. But just when the puzzle should accelerate, the picture slows down, pushing poor Teddy into a series of encounters with excellent actors (Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) who provide painstaking exposition of matters that the audience already suspects are completely irrelevant. Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.
The instability this first act establishes is entirely deliberate (which is not to say it's entirely successful): Teddy Daniels can't make out what sort of island he's on and what the asylum's officials have in mind for him; the audience can't make out what sort of movie we're at and what Martin Scorsese has in mind for us. An important difference, though, is that Teddy is driven at the cost of his sanity to ferret out the island's dark secrets, whereas we have a hard time working up the energy to care. Shutter Island is an aesthetically and at times intellectually exciting puzzle, but it's never emotionally involving. The movie is inert, despite the fact that it bombards us with lurid imagery and high-intensity stimuli: frozen Dachau victims, dying Nazis, beautiful child murderesses, abandoned graveyards besieged by hurricanes. Set piece after set piece makes you go, "Holy mackerel," but the entirety of the movie makes you go, "When's dinner?"
Leonardo DiCaprio is not without talent, but how did he come to be Martin Scorsese's muse? The type of role Scorsese loves to craft for him is just the sort he's most unsuited to: the anguished but streetwise tough guy with his collar turned up to the wind. Beneath the Robert Mitchum mannerisms and carefully cultivated Boston accent (dusted off from his role in 2006's The Departed), DiCaprio still seems like a pudding-faced little boy, alternately sullen and giddy, a little too eager to be loved (his best performances, to my mind, are still in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Catch Me If You Can). The photo at the top of this review captures the classic expression of Leo trying too hard: All his features migrate to the middle of his face and just sort of crouch there. In the movie's press notes, Patricia Clarkson (who appears briefly as an oracular figure in a cliffside cave) praises DiCaprio's energy as an actor: "I loved working with him because he gives 2000% on every take." If Marty insists on casting Leo as his leading man next time, he should take him aside and advise him that that's 20 times too much.
Maybe it's admirable, on a personal level, for Scorsese to pursue something he's not that good at. But that's a little like saying that I should try writing romance novels. Hey, it's just words on the screen, right? I do that already! He seems to have painted himself into a late-career pattern of making leaden, inflated genre pictures, all of them featuring DiCaprio in his unkempt, boiled-owl mode and all of them loaded with internal contradictions and at war with themselves. Shutter Island would be a difficult and delicate movie to manage under the best of circumstances. Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis need to keep the audience engaged by the movie's official mystery — Teddy's investigation of the hospital and its secrets — while slowly revealing other, deeper mysteries that lie within the characters and story. But from the instant Teddy arrives on the island, plagued with nausea and jitters, and announces (as in the much-ridiculed trailer) that he and Chuck are "dooly appointed fedrul mahh-shals," far too much of "Shutter Island" plays like lugubrious comedy.
When it comes to encasing a soft, pulpy plot in the hard candy of power-drama filmmaking, few fare better than Martin Scorsese. Even when said plot is stuffed with corn, rolled in cliche and harboring a twist visible from deep space, the director's grasp of camera movement and atmosphere still enthralls. That's why Shutter Island is at once a fine movie and a terrible one, entertaining and embarrassing in almost equal measure. It's a pretentious piece of rubbish shaped by craftsmen into a semblance of high art.