Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is a pretty terrible movie but I can’t just leave it at that. It’s the kind of bad movie only very talented people could make, and that gives it a fascination. I watched it in a state of rapt bewilderment.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who has made almost as many movies by now with Scorsese as Robert De Niro, plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels, who, with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), is summoned to the forbidding, totally isolated Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a mental patient and murderess from the Ashecliffe psychiatric hospital. The time is cold-war-era 1954, which only adds to the already paranoid atmosphere. Zombiefied patients eyeball the marshals with blank fury; doctors in residence, including the elegant Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the German-accented Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), seem by turns accommodating and sinister. Nothing is what it seems on this island, except maybe the weather, which kicks into Gothic hurricane mode halfway through.
To an even greater extent than Quentin Tarantino, Scorsese is our leading film director-as-archivist. His movies are riddled with oddments and swipes and homages from the entire history of film, and none more so than “Shutter Island” (which screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis adapted from Dennis Lehane’s 2003 bestseller). It’s fun, in a film-school kind of way, to pick out the references: “Out of the Past,” “Laura,” “Isle of the Dead,” and so forth. And yet no one but Scorsese could have made this film. For one thing, no one else could so obsessively have bound all these movie references together.
But the question I kept asking myself throughout this overlong movie is: Why bother? Scorsese has made many movies in many modes, from “Raging Bull” to “Age of Innocence,” and he deserves as much as any filmmaker alive the right to punch out a commercial project. But “Shutter Island” isn’t as strictly commercial as, say, the egregious “Cape Fear.” Even though Scorsese tricks the movie up with all manner of old-school frights, complete with buckets of blood and doomy music on the soundtrack, he’s more ambitious than that. He wants to create a madman’s universe patterned not only on cold-war creepies like “Shock Corridor” but also on German Expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He wants to show us how the tactics of horror schlockmeisters can give rise to art.
The problem is that Scorsese is more keyed into the schlock than the art. “Shutter Island” would have been better if it was less ambitious, less adorned with history-of-film pyrotechnics. The story line is replete with switcheroos and double whammies and flashbacks and fantasias, and some of the game playing is ingenious and scary, but ultimately this is a puzzle movie trying to be grand opera.
The actors try their best to fit into this maelstrom. Kingsley and Von Sydow come off best, perhaps because their roles are the most clearly demarcated. Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and Jackie Earle Haley give it their bughouse best. DiCaprio, whose character is racked by memories of liberating Dachau as a soldier and the horrifying demise of his wife (Michelle Williams), seems too callow – although the miscasting here isn’t as startling as it was in Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” where DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes seemed barely old enough to shave. Ruffalo is adept but somewhat recessive. On a second viewing of this film, after its mysteries are revealed, his performance probably makes more sense. But who would want to see “Shutter Island” twice?
Scorsese has made some of the best horror films of the modern era, but their horror, as in “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” is all psychological. “Shutter Island” is, ultimately, a psychological horror film, too, but you have to slog through an awful lot of loony-bin stylistics to get much out of it. It comes on strong, but in its bloody heart of hearts it’s no more resonant than one of those old Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe contraptions – and less entertaining, too. Grade: C (Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and some nudity.)