Shutter Island
A Scorsese Puzzle

Long considered to be overlooked, legendary director Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar for directing his exciting 2006 cops-and-robbers flick The Departed.  For his next narrative feature, Scorsese reunites with star Leonardo DiCaprio for the fourth time to make Shutter Island, a puzzling thriller based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.  Previously set to be released last October, the movie now hopes to take advantage of the notoriously lightweight month of February.

DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal investigating the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the mental institution housed on Shutter Island.  The institution acts as both a prison and a hospital, as the patients are all violent offenders who have been declared criminally insane.  As his investigation receives some resistance by the guards and doctors, Teddy begins to suspect that something is amiss.  His suspicions are somewhat confirmed when he finds a note from the missing patient that suggests the hospital houses one more patient than it claims.

Teddy is also haunted by his own past.  After returning home from the horrors of World War II, his wife was killed in a fire at their apartment.  Teddy claims that the fire was started by the building’s pyromaniac maintenance man, whom he now believes is a patient at Shutter Island.

DiCaprio as Teddy in Shutter IslandWith its dark hospital corridors and character hallucinations, Shutter Island reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining.  Unlike that film, however, Scorsese’s movie takes time to explain everything at the end and it is probably weaker for it.  Somewhat echoing Memento, it’s also not a very surprising ending and I doubt there were many in the audience who didn’t see at least the basic concept coming.

The movie never felt like much more than your typical Hollywood psych thriller, despite its award-winning pedigree.  The look of the film is adequately moody, but Scorsese does use some flashy camera moves that may look great in something like Goodfellas, but feel out of place here.  What stood out the most for me was the film’s musical score, but not for positive reasons.  The music is incredibly intrusive, especially in the beginning.  Remember the Bull Durham scene where Tim Robbins tells Kevin Costner that he wants to “announce his presence with authority”?  I can imagine this film’s composer saying something similar to Scorsese.

The actors are all solid as expected.  Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow both bring the correct level of underlying menace to their roles that is required, while Jackie Earl Haley and Patricia Clarkson standout in their limited screen time as patients.  Mark Ruffalo is good, but underused as Teddy’s partner Chuck.  DiCaprio’s performance, I think, would look better upon repeated viewings.  My first impression was that he was playing it a bit too seriously, but the film’s final plot twist puts that level of seriousness somewhat into perspective.

The whole movie might benefit from a second viewing, like a puzzle whose pieces can only be appreciated once you’ve seen the end result.  Small details such as Chuck’s difficulty in removing his firearm are not fully understood until looking back.

On a first viewing, however, I must say that the film is rather underwhelming.  Real suspense is never really generated and the movie is often dull, especially during the extended explanation sequence and flashback near the end.  Actors are often called out for taking gigs for the paycheck and Shutter Island seems like the director’s version of that.  There is little about this movie that suggests “A Martin Scorsese Picture” and I’ll bet in time only his biggest fans will be giving it that second look.

Shutter Island is rated R for “disturbing violent content, language and some nudity.”  It’s mostly the overall uneasy, disturbing feeling that this movie generates that warrants the R rating.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Shutter Island.