'Shutter Island': High Art, But Made Of Rubbish

Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo

hide captionSmoke And Mirrors: Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are 1950s U.S. Marshals who've been sent to investigate the disappearance of a murderer from a hospital for the criminally insane.

Paramount Pictures

Shutter Island

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 138 minutes
Rated R: Disturbing violence, language and some nudity

With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow

When it comes to encasing a soft, pulpy plot in the hard candy of power-drama filmmaking, few fare better than Martin Scorsese. Even when said plot is stuffed with corn, rolled in cliche and harboring a twist visible from deep space, the director's grasp of camera movement and atmosphere still enthralls. That's why Shutter Island is at once a fine movie and a terrible one, entertaining and embarrassing in almost equal measure. It's a pretentious piece of rubbish shaped by craftsmen into a semblance of high art.

As the opening sequence forewarns, what we are about to see is really an extended exercise in psychological regurgitation. It's 1954, and U.S. Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), introduced with his head in the toilet, is steaming toward the titular island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane. Framed by electrified fences, jagged cliffs and tinfoil skies, our first glimpse of the island is a hyper-real portent of the histrionics to come; as Daniels and partner Chuck Aule (a laid-back Mark Ruffalo) enter the fortress-like facility, the only thing missing is a gloating laugh on the soundtrack.

Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio i i

hide captionHead Case: After a storm cuts the island hospital off from the mainland, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, center) become weary of the manipulative hospital psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley, left) who won't let the pair out of his sight.

Paramount Pictures
Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio

Head Case: After a storm cuts the island hospital off from the mainland, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, center) become weary of the manipulative hospital psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley, left) who won't let the pair out of his sight.

Paramount Pictures

Even at an indulgent and unnecessary 138 minutes, the ensuing story barely makes sense. Adapting Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis works a florid compound of Nazis, infanticide, PTSD and psychopharmacology into a haunted-house framework as hollow as the hospital's echoing corridors. Daniels, we soon learn, is a deeply troubled guy: His dead wife (Michelle Williams), whispering dire warnings in Technicolor flashbacks, jostles for space in his head alongside violent memories of his participation in the liberation of Dachau. Meanwhile, the institution's senior doctors (who else but Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow?) seem more forthcoming with medicine for his persistent migraines than with information about the missing patient.

As the investigation becomes subsumed by Daniels' growing fears and various MacGuffins — a cryptic note, a mysterious lighthouse, a familiarly loony Elias Koteas — production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson take charge. Elbowing Scorsese out of the way, they fill the screen with weather-beaten images of fleeing rats and frozen corpses, weeping walls and wind-whipped undergrowth. But it's all just empty visual futzing: Absent an emotional connection (unlike Polanski, Scorsese has no Holocaust cred), snowflakes alighting on dead children or the falling ash from crematoriums are just so much meaningless beauty.

Modeled on any number of psycho mysteries — from Laura to Repulsion to, more recently, the vastly superior Angel Heart and the near-perfect Session 9 — this is the fourth Scorsese film to star DiCaprio (after Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed), and that's not necessarily a good thing. Appearing in virtually every scene, identifying Mahler on the gramophone and spouting words like "edify," DiCaprio may never be the most physically imposing of heroes. But no one does torment with such flair or relish: He's a glutton for self-punishment. Here, however, powerfully understated performances by Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson (perhaps patients, perhaps not) remind us that sometimes you say more when you do less.

Nowhere near the sum of its parts, Shutter Island succeeds neither as straight-up suspense nor as psychological horror. Concentrating 1950s paranoia — atolls and A-bombs, Nazi experiments and HUAC — in a single location, the movie dances for our love on the graves of innocents and the Cold War fears of an entire generation.

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