Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a spectacular mis-fire. This rambling and misshapen wreck of a film all but confirms that his Best Director/Best Picture combo Oscar for The Departed was merely a belated apology for the Goodfellas snub, and not a late-career resurgence.
With Robert DeNiro as his muse, Scorsese crafted cinematic classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. With DiCaprio, he’s delivered the abstruse and turgid train wrecks Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, and now, Shutter Island. Simultaneously noisy and tiresome, the film expends so much energy trying to conceal its central gimmick that it spirals out of control. And without any real point of focus, all the sturm und drang dissipates like a whisper in a hurricane.
From the opening frames, where a ferry slowly drifts out of an impossibly opaque fog bank, the film announces its agenda to deliberately withhold the bigger picture. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing the film decides to withhold, because the rest of the film is overstuffed with a collection of thrown-together noir movie cliches.
Leonardo DiCaprio scrunches his face into knots to play Teddy Daniels, a man who constantly insists that he is a United States Marshall. He arrives on Shutter Island with a brand new partner to investigate the escape of a prisoner while, naturally, a hurricane is bearing down on the island. The hospital is run by the mysterious Dr. Cawling, played by the shaven head of Ben Kingsley. When Max Von Sydow shows up as a German doctor, the alarm bells of suspicion turn into red flags of absurdity. Von Sydow couldn’t appear benevolent if he walked onscreen carrying a bouquet of roses, surrounded by animated bluebirds.
The escaped prisoner plot line quickly takes a back seat to implications of nefarious conspiracies, personal vengeance, and Nazi-science experiment surgeries. The facility on Shutter Island isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda. Teddy, it turns out, believes the man who killed his wife has been hidden away in the bowels of the hospital, and he’s on an unofficial mission to find him. It also comes as no surprise to learn that Teddy is a haunted man, plagued by visions of his dead wife and his experiences in World War II. As the investigation plods onward, Teddy devolves into a hospital orderly, an inmate, and a fugitive.
Unfortunately, the trailer tips off almost all of the plot, and every scene carries the scent of suspicion. Misdirection hangs in the air like a thick fog, and nothing that we can actually see is engaging on its own, semi-obscured terms. The mysterious flashbacks are inexplicably psychedelic, and the powers-that-be on the island are improbably obscure. As the incongruities mount, that sense of withholding becomes fatally distracting. When Teddy has a crucial confrontation with a prisoner, you can’t help but wonder which cliché will ultimately explain everything. Is it the Jacob’s Ladder purgatory? The Angel Heart descent into hell? The sinister conspiracy that ensnares Teddy a la Arlington Road?
The problem with Shutter Island is that it violates the trust between the audience and the storyteller. Movies that have a successful twist have to operate on two levels. With or without knowledge of the bigger picture, every scene has to make sense both ways. For all the logistical nonsense of Fight Club and solemn misdirection of The Sixth Sense, the first two acts of both films are comprehensible and emotionally engaging on their own. By the time the narrative is stood sideways, it’s an enhancement, not a relief. On Shutter Island, the director is part of the subterfuge. The mystery doesn’t come from the telling, it comes from the certainty that the filmmakers are withholding some crucial parts of the story.
Scorsese’s hallmark has always been intense realism, so the opportunity to squander an epic budget on psychedelic elements must have been attractive. It’s hard to imagine another film that would allow him to stage the graphic concentration camp shootout that is one of the best executed (pun intended) visuals in the film. The pretentious and CGI heavy images of fire and water homage European surrealism, and the extended flashback that caps Teddy’s story feels like it could have been lifted from an unseen Bergman work.
All that firepower is wasted on a film that perversely decrescendos instead of climaxing. Whatever cinema-historical references Scorsese set out to homage are best left uncelebrated. Perhaps an upcoming filmmaker working on a tight budget could have made a smart, claustrophobic thriller out of this material. Sadly, Scorsese and his unchecked ambitions have little to offer beyond unnecessary obscurity.