What’s Good: Scorsese’s best film since “Bringing Out the Dead.” A solid screenplay adaptation remains undaunted by an overbearing director and overwrought actor. I also like how this period movie does not contain the usual period music that Scorsese has a tendency to punish us with. Also, I must say that seeing actors Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Elias Koteas in a Martin Scorsese film for the first time is a real treat–see Marty, there are actually some good actors around who weren’t in “Titanic.”
What’s Not: Even overrated directors and actors can make a good movie every now and again.
Fake Peter Travis Blurb: More twists and turns than my small intestine. Martin Scorsese is the best director who ever walked the ear, I want to blow him, um, a kiss. This one’s a real grabber!
With “Shutter Island” Martin Scorsese’s influences coming from a number of different places and thankfully none of them have anything to do with organized crime. Let’s start with the period of movies in which this one is set, the early 50s. This is an insane asylum mystery with all the subtlety of, well, an insane asylum. Asking the much asked question: “it the patients who are crazy or the system that contains them?” the great Sam Fuller movie “Shock Corridor” came to my mind a lot but probably a dozen more came to Scorsese’s with Hitchcock, of course, begin a clear favorite. One influence that Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen or intended is a palpably empathetic horror aesthetic that plays out like a Hollywood version of the survival horror video game “Silent Hill” with a closely identified character walking down long corridors while people in straight jackets jump out to say “boo!” Another noticeable and random influence comes from the “dark” Spielberg epoch that gave us a ton of crappy films like “Saving Private Ryan” (both share a WWII theme), “Minority Report” (ditto, noir) with a commonality of dead children in all. Like Spielberg’s war and mystery works, “Shutter Island” is a big booming melodramatic murder mystery with vibrant colors penetrating the beautifully bleached cinematography. Unlike Spielberg though Scorsese it too smart to let emotion get the better of him or his characters. Instead, he allows emotion to consume them. The final big influence on Scorsese seems to be Scorsese himself, specifically the frantic “Cape Fear” Scorsese full of anger and pessimism and crazy people and big storms whose godly power puts pithy earthlings in their place until the story is told.
Scorsese seems to work better when he’s not making the kind of movie that he thinks we expect him to make. The god awful “Departed,” “Gangs of New York” and even (don’t hate me, but…) “Goodfellas” are examples of a smart director who is able to channel a lot of creative energy into films that are basically second-hand crime stories that add nothing to the genre except for a fun but ultimately empty sense of misplaced manic energy. “Shutter Island” is not that Scorsese. But that does not meant that it fits with the other Scorsese who stumbled upon his best work in years with “The Aviator” (which turns out to be not even that good in retrospect). Like the protagonist that haunts the shadowy, light flickery institutional corridors, this film exists in-between worlds without ever seeming to belong. Gotta love limbo.
The film features Leonardo DiCaprio in yet another one of his tightly wound performances. As a bonus he even reprises that silly Boston accent from “Depaaaaaaaateeeeeeed.” At least he’s not playing a South African again. Leo is an odd actor to assess because his selection in roles far surpasses his ability in said roles. After “Titanic” Leonardo became a huge name but even then few really thought he was super talented, especially when he followed “Titanic” up with “The Beach” (between those two, it’s no wonder he gets sea sick in “Shutter Island’s” opening scene). Then something happened. He made “Gangs of New York” with Scorsese. That’s all it took. Really?! People instantly started taking him seriously even though he did nothing to prove why we should. In fact, “Gangs” was proof of the opposite as even fans didn’t love him in that (it didn’t help that he was standing next to Daniel Day Lewis). In all of his subsequent films with Scorsese (or Ridley Scott or Woody Allen or Ed Zwick or Sam Mendes etc.) I never understood what either saw in each other because neither brings out the best in the other. This is the one of the most dull actor/director duos of all time, ranking just above the Stephen Sommers/Kevin J. O’Connor powerhouse that yield, to this day, gems like “The Mummy,” “Deep Rising” and “G.I. Joe.” My only guess is that Scorsese became blinded by the school girl allure of Leo (not Leonardo, just Leo) and thus wanted to forge him into his very own De Niro and, like a fluttery eyed ingénue, Leo, in turn, did his best to impress this “genus” and he was smart to do so. The fact remains that DiCpario finds himself miscast in, oh, just about every film he’s ever been in. Okay, “Catch Me if You Can” (Spielberg of course) and “Titanic” used the naughty/clean boy act right and “Shutter Island” might be lucky number three except that’s not a lucky number at all.
Putting the mystery of DiCaprio’s esteemed career aside, there are a lot of fun twists in this mystery, so much so that many people who saw it last weekend fully expected to see ghosts. And maybe they did. Either way, by the end we see how Leo’s performance actually makes a lot of sense given the context he is placed in which I won’t spoil. Aside from a lot of really embarrassing interrogation scenes (DiCaprio is never worse than when he projects disdain for another character), this is a “good” Leo performance if only because it’s the sort of overwrought, shaky-hand and intense-all-the-time performances that the film absolutely needed in order to work and is thus is able to work him into the narrative web rather than the other way around as is usually the case.
The story is not going to win any awards but this is not that kind of movie. Hum, come to think of it “The Departed” also was not intended to be but that didn’t stop people from heaping praise upon it as if it were the last time they were ever going to get to do so with Scorsese. Everything we see in this movie exists through the dark ringed eyes of the protagonist, a U.S. Marshal, and if you follow the logic of his encounter with this strange Island and it’s secret holding overseers (Ben Kingsley is particularly good as a very calm and modern Freudian psychiatrist that rejects the harsh old ways of treatment… or does he?) may be far fetched if you think about it but it holds up much better than it has any right to–or, at least, it holds up as much as one can say it holds up having seen it only once. The plot, about a man looking for lost things on this island (yes, I’m being deliberately vague), does a remarkable job at keeping us and it’s character in the moment (Laeta Kalogridis should be commended for adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) without ever getting wearing out its welcome. Sure it strings us along but does it so well enough that we want to go along.
“Shutter Island” is particularly adept at reinventing itself at the end of ever act. Not only does the primary mystery get solved half way through but the final twist, an epic though not terribly original role reversal, is not only a whopper but a whopper that’s actually grounded in reality. Granted it’s a dour Lehanian reality, but still. It’s not great art, it’s just good pulp. If there is a flaw it is not that Scorsese is aiming low but that he’s so damn obvious about how low he’s aiming as if he wants points for not being high brow. But is he ever really high brow? Scorsese wants us to know with every twist and turn of the camera and every sharp musical chord that pounds away at our heads like one of Leo’s migraines, is that he’s in on the spooky fun.
“Shutter Island” is a good mystery movie if you can forget that Scorsese approaches it as such a deliberate mystery movie. In the fuck-with-your-head genre, it’s too forced to appreciate in the say way as a David Fincher mystery like “The Game” or Michael Heneke’s “Cache” but I’m not dumb enough to expect more from this project or director than either are capable of delivering. I would be foolish and even lying if I said the end product isn’t totally enjoyable while it’s unfolding. It’s a B-movie in every sense of the word including…