I approach every Martin Scorsese picture with the hope that it will be worthy of his reputation and extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker. Shutter Island marks the fourth time he has worked with Leonardo DiCaprio, who has matured year by year and benefited from the association. And, of course, Scorsese has assembled a gold-plated roster of collaborators for the project, including film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Sandy Powell…not to mention a cast including Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Max von Sydow. Any film involving these talents is automatically worth seeing, and cannot—
—be dismissed out of hand…but I have to call Shutter Island a major disappointment.
Laeta Kalogridis adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone made a successful transition to film. This time around, the Boston-area setting—a remote island off the coast—is so overtly creepy from the start that one wonders how much stranger it can possibly get. As it happens, the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the island, which is home to an asylum for the criminally insane, offers much sturm und drang but little enjoyment—except the pleasure of watching fine craftsmen at work (on both sides of the camera). The acting is uniformly fine, and the look of the film is rich and textured, although the use of CGI seems heavy-handed at times.
Shutter Island is difficult to discuss without giving away the “big reveal,” a twist so far-reaching it will likely polarize viewers, some of whom may find it fascinating while others will simply be put off. I felt as if I’d been led through a labyrinthine shaggy-dog story only to arrive at a meaningless punchline.
Shutter Island deals with nature of insanity. Scorsese has never shied away from characters who indulge in extreme behavior, but in this case it’s not so much their actions as it is our point-of-view that takes center stage. Who is to judge what’s real and what isn’t, or what we can properly call crazy?
There’s plenty of fodder for discussion on that point once you’ve digested the movie, but being able to engage in debate doesn’t alleviate the oppressive experience of watching the film, or the feeling that there may not have been much of a point.
I love watching good actors at work. DiCaprio looks a bit out of his element in the ill-fitting clothes of a civil servant of the 1950s, but he does a good job. Michelle Williams is quite touching, seen in flashbacks as his late wife. Patricia Clarkson has just one scene, but it’s great, and Ben Kingsley approaches his character with such pinpoint precision that you can’t help but admire him. Everyone gets a chance to shine in this lengthy, layered narrative. But I’d much rather see these talented people in a story that engages me and gives me something to take away other than a feeling of frustration and unfulfilled expectations.