There’s plenty to like in “Shutter Island,” Martin Scorsese’s first true thriller in almost twenty years. The mood is intermittently creepy, the cinematography is often quite beautiful, and the story ends up being better than the first hour would suggest.
On the whole, though, it’s a perfect example of a film being less than the sum of its parts. It has a venerated director at the helm, Dennis Lehane’s source material—he wrote the novel on which the film is based, (along with “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone”) – and the considerable talents of Leonard DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and Max Von Sydow. Things should be OK, right? Just OK is the way things end up being, and not much more. What should be simple procedures – like adding appropriate music and employing basic camera techniques – often end up being over the top and jarring, thereby taking away from what could have been so much more.
There really isn’t much of a hook, just a ten-minute introduction aboard a ferry that’s full of shoddy foreshadowing (the Captain warns, ominously, “there’s a storm comin’ ”) and an awful green screen. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Ruffalo), mull their assignment: finding a patient on Shutter Island who escaped from a mental institution for the criminally insane.
As the island approaches and the film’s ferry horn-like music starts booming over the surrounding speakers. The viewer doesn’t know whether he or she should scramble for earplugs or a life-preserver. It’s obvious what Scorsese is trying to accomplish, the blaring horns and cellos representative of a wailing sound, which warns of impending disaster. But it just comes across as annoying and headache inducing; a reminder of what lesser filmmakers lean on to stir emotion in the audience. “Danger! Danger, Teddy Daniels!” it seemingly screams. “Enter at your own risk!” Even worse are the distracting fast-pans that are used to zero effect, which, after used half a dozen times, convinced me that the resident camera operator was using a tripod without the benefit of a fluid head. Yes, we know there are schizophrenics on this island, but that doesn’t mean we have to feel like we’re afflicted with it after the credits roll.
Scorsese is clearly a lover of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, movies, which reveled in gradually building tension for the first 90 minutes just to pull out the rug in the last ten. The difference is that here the buildup is a laborious two hours, and were it not for the film’s clever ending, what came before would feel utterly useless. Mind-bending escapism is successful when it keeps us interested while simultaneously setting up the “you-didn’t-see-this-coming” climax. In that respect, “Shutter Island” is only mildly effective.
It’s one constant is the acting. DiCaprio, as usual, is a delight to watch. He convincingly shows fear, denial, confusion and horror; often times all at once. In the final heart-wrenching scenes, especially, he illustrates why Scorsese has chosen to collaborate with him on four straight films. Their previous efforts, “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed”, were varied in their approaches, and DiCaprio seems to have picked up bits from each. His Teddy Daniels combines the youthful vigor he displayed in “Gangs” with the mental anguish he showed in “Aviator” and the gritty anger seething to the surface in “Departed.” Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo play their roles with subtlety, never attempting to steal the spotlight from DiCaprio but still having their own memorable moments when duty calls (when Kingsley asks DiCaprio, with deadly seriousness, “Why are you all wet, baby?” you know he means business.)
What the mystery is on Shutter Island isn’t all that interesting – until you find out what it really is. At that point, you question everything that’s come before. When you realize all the hints that were dropped along the way, you can’t help but smile. Yes, you’ll say, the final destination was worth the ride. One only wishes that the two hours preceding it were a little more engaging
“Shutter Island” is rated R for violence, language, and rampant smoking. Now playing everywhere.