(No longer in theaters)
Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, Martin Scorsese
Feb 19, 2010
Some great directors, as they age, strive to simplify and refine their technique in the hope of getting closer to their subjects, but Martin Scorsese has happily—perhaps even with relief—moved into a long and not so emotionally taxing formalist phase (with fat studio paychecks). He seems to have been drawn to Shutter Island by the chance to quote from quasi-horror asylum B movies like Shock Corridor and Bedlam, and to play the kind of straight-ahead illusion-versus-reality games he leaped clean over in his early expressionist masterpieces Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Dennis Lehane’s novel, about a Boston detective who travels to an insane asylum on a craggy island to investigate the disappearance of a female patient, is a doodle, a Paul Auster Lite breather between his tortured Mystic River and the panoramic The Given Day. But Scorsese draws it out to two hours and twenty minutes of Hitchcock-like tracking shots and bombastic music and shrieking storms and detectives in long coats and fedoras trudging past leering mental patients. It’s all deliberately artificial, of course, and the fifties noir tropes do gradually morph into something weirder and more hallucinatory. But even when the detective-story foundation begins to crumble and the gumshoe protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes racked with visions of concentration camps and bloody children and babbles about Communist subversives and Nazi experiments, Shutter Island is still suffocatingly movieish.
DiCaprio had a breakthrough in the much-maligned Reservation Road: He sanded off some layers of polish and dared to be raw, wobbly, in the moment. He’s every bit as good here—he’s just not very interesting. He trudges around with his sidekick (Mark Ruffalo) interviewing characters played by great actors pretending to be bad actors (only Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley’s strangely paternal psychiatrist are fun to watch), and it’s all setup for the big reveal of the last 25 minutes. The ending is powerful (it should be, given how Scorsese lingers on the corpses of little kids), but Shutter Island is a long slog. The sad thing is that Scorsese could have connected emotionally with Lehane’s narrative. Without spelling things out, the story comes down to whether fierce self-dramatization can lead to revelation, catharsis, and healing—a question raised obliquely in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But Scorsese can’t get past the thicket of old movies. He’s farther from reality than his hero is.