Dialed up to 11 for nearly all of its bloated 138-minute
runtime, Shutter Island adapts Dennis
Lehane’s novel with a baroque extravagance that can’t compensate for lousy
pop-lit source material and a script (by Laeta Kalogridis) that both fails to
elicit engagement with its characters and invest its puzzle-box story with
meta-cinema weight. In 1954, federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)
travels with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to New England’s maximum security
mental hospital Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient
named Rachel Solando. Once there, however, it turns out that nothing is what it
seems, both with regards to the clinical work being spearheaded by Dr. Cawley
(Ben Kingsley) and Teddy’s true motivations for visiting the remote facility.
Except that it doesn’t even take that long for Scorsese to intimate that
strange things are afoot, as an opening tracking shot through a ship mess hall
to a sweaty Teddy puking his brains out, immediately preceded by the Taxi Driver-ish sight of Teddy’s boat emerging
from ghostly mist, makes plain the unreliability of this presented fiction. And
things become even hazier once Teddy and Chuck hear the amazing particulars of
Rachel’s escape, which would have had to involve miracle upon miracle.
Scorsese establishes his set-up with a beautiful array of tense widescreen compositions, luxurious tracking shots, and (with aid from longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) a series of jarring cuts that heighten the overall impression of reality tearing at the seams. Soon after his investigation begins, Teddy begins seeing his dead wife (Michelle Williams) in fiery hallucinations overflowing with grand gestures – CG effects, rear-projection, fast-forward and rewind (dig that cigarette smoke reentering the filter) – and set to an array of haunting classical-composer cuts assembled by Robbie Robertson. Whereas these technically dexterous sequences are rousing in the moment, they overstay their welcome in nearly all cases, a situation that soon extends to Shutter Island as a whole as it barrels toward a conclusion that any genre-schooled viewer will see coming from the opening frames. That journey is an intermittently thrilling one populated by a peerless cast which also includes Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Early Haley and Patricia Clarkson. Yet their performances, like DiCaprio’s central one, become infected by the same overcooked out-thereness that plagues Scorsese’s direction, which turns every other storm-cloudy shot (weather = psychology here) and line of dialogue into a dum-dum-DUM moment. The proceedings quickly feel fatigued, as if run aground by ominous-itis.
Cinephile that Scorsese is, Shutter Island melds film noir, Holocaust drama, horror scareshow and Agatha Christie mystery, all while pivoting around an M. Night Shyamalan conceit noticeable so early on that it drains most of the story’s juice. Scorsese in fact telegraphs this denouement with such clunkiness that it almost seems as if he’s determined to expose his pulp material’s true nature so he can then get on with casting the film – which fundamentally revolves around notions of heroic fantasy projections and delusions being used as tools of denial from traumatic realities – as a metaphor for the act of cinemagoing. Unfortunately, the prolonged nature of a misdirection-laden second act and a climax that doesn’t end until every last question has been explicitly answered suggests, ultimately, that the film’s obviousness is less a clever ploy than merely a symptom of the director’s heavy hand. Which isn’t to say that, scene to scene, Shutter Island’s overwrought style can’t be entrancing – few directors can generate such menace and terror from a single silky pan or jarring edit. But beholden to plot above all else, the film’s audio-video barrage ultimately just puffs up corny B-movie material to the point of distension.