“Shutter Island,” a film that is both fascinating and frustrating, represents a rare misfire from legendary director Martin Scorsese.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, the author of such books-turned-films as “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” “Shutter Island” focuses on two U.S. Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) who are sent to a hospital for the criminally insane in hopes of being able to find an escaped patient (Emily Mortimer).
DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy but he may never be able to leave the island to tell the world what he has discovered. From the get-go, the head doctors of the island, played by acting greats Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, seem up to something.
Teddy is haunted by memories of his late wife and the atrocities he saw at a concentration camp during World War II. As the film progresses his sense of reality becomes increasingly warped. Is he going insane or are the employees of the island simply attempting to ruin his credibility?
The film recalls Alfred Hitchcock's “Vertigo” as well as “The Wicker Man” and Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining.” All these films deal in a reality that is becoming increasingly unstable and on forces working to undermine the protagonist.
There's are also moments that bring to mind the kitschy horror films of William Castle, who made such films as “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghosts.” The idea of Scorsese making a campy horror film does have appeal, but “Shutter Island” is attempting to be somber, paranoid-filled thriller, so these isolated flashes of camp work against that objective.
The film's biggest problem is that it is such an amalgamation of conflicting tones that it is hard to get a read on the film. This is meant to be a psychological thriller, so having the audience off balance is a good thing, but somewhere along the way there is a break and the film becomes less engaging. You still watch and admire the craftsmanship, but there's no emotional connection.
Part of what feeds this disconnect is that early on it is clear that the film is building towards some big final reveal and so eventually you just sit there waiting for the big twist to occur. It is a long wait with the film clocking in at over two hours. When it finally does arrive, it is rather anti-climatic and requires Kingsley to do a lot of explaining.
This is a departure for Scorsese in terms of genre and he feels out of his element. Scorsese almost always seems in complete control of his films; here at times he seems slightly lost at sea. The perfect example of this is the comically overwrought score that is employed heavily in the early scenes. It distracts instead of helping to create a mood.
Is the film still worth a look? When your as prolific a filmmaker as Scorsese, it is inevitable that your work will be looked at with a more critical eye. And while this doesn't hold up against his best work, there are still things to admire about it.
There is a suspenseful sequence in the corridor of the ward where the worst of the criminally insane are held that has an effectively chilling atmosphere. Some of the dream sequence are startling and create an unsettlingly surreal mood.
Unfortunately, in both cases, Scorsese is unable to sustain these moods.
The acting throughout is solid. DiCaprio plays the film on an unremitting level of intensity as he interacts with a cast of reliable character actors including Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Michelle Williams, Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch.
So, yes, this is not Scorsese at the top of his game, but even a lesser Scorsese film is still better than most films released on a weekly basis.