SHUTTER ISLAND (2009, directed by Martin Scorsese, 138 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
I’ve never heard anyone accuse Martin Scorsese of coasting, even his least successful films show stretches of inspiration that raise them above mere journeyman work. His latest, an adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s best-selling Shutter Island is a gorgeously-produced, well-acted film but is unlike nearly anything is Scorsese’s filmography: a predictable thriller’s whose biggest mystery is exactly what attracted Scorsese to it to begin with. Going deep into M.Night Shyamalan territory, Shutter Island is one of our most idiosyncratic director’s least personal films yet.
Scorsese continues his somewhat perplexing infatuation with Leonardo DiCaprio, casting him as Teddy Daniels, a police detective who has teamed up with a new partner (the always ingratiating Mark Ruffalo ) to investigate the disappearance of a patient from an island asylum for the criminally insane. The missing patient is one Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who drowned her three children in a lake. Her disturbing crime triggers flashbacks from Teddy’s experience of liberating the Dachau concentration camp at the end of WW2. At every turn, Teddy falls deeper into the mystery: What is really going on with the hospital’s experimental therapies? Does Rachel Solando actually exist? Have Nazi doctors really taken over the facilities? Are assassins being trained? Can Teddy trust his new, extremely deferential partner? Is there a plot to have Teddy committed as well?
The flat script by Laeta Kalogridis (whose biggest previous writing credit is on Oliver Stone’s horrible Alexander The Great biopic) chases down these endless loose threads, each painstakingly explained in talky set-pieces with a list of fine actors (Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, even Max Von Sydow ) yet at nearly two hours and twenty minutes Scorsese is unable to disguise the obvious endpoints of these subplots. This is ultimately a deadly flaw for the film; it is always frustrating to know where a mystery is heading, then having to wait 45 minutes for the protagonist to catch up. Maybe if DiCaprio brought more to his performance than his one-note anxiety. I guess his performance is competent enough, but the real mystery for me is that the ultimate “actor’s director” still feels that there are unplumbed depths in DiCaprio. Maybe it is a paisan thing, I don’t know.
Scorsese dresses up the film in a lot of Hitchcockian stagecraft (a trick he used in his wine commercial short, The Key To Reserva) while examining the overly-familiar theme of men coming to grips with their capacity for violence. Yet despite its masterful flourishes, Shutter Island never transcends the pedestrian mystery at its center. The film’s epic score (drawn from twentieth century works by Lygeti, Penderecki and others) and awesomely imposing island locale only serve to dwarf its minor ambitions and meager, rain-soaked rewards.