We've come to expect Martin Scorsese to swing for the fences every single time he's at bat, so when a movie comes along like Shutter Island, a pulpy, by-the-numbers thriller, it's easy to feel a slight twinge of disappointment. Here, we're dealing with a lesser work by a modern master, which is to say that Shutter Island is still a crackerjack mystery, executed with great artistic care, but it's also Scorsese working about as close as he ever has to popcorn-munching cineplex fare. It's a hard-boiled and unpretentious outing, but the individual parts of Shutter Island are greater than the whole -- particularly the cinematography by Robert Richardson and outstanding work from a dream team ensemble cast.
Leading that dream team is Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, called in to a state-run mental institution on a storm-battered, rocky island on the East Coast, along with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). The delusional murderess Rachel Solando has gone missing from her cell, leaving behind no evident clues, and with those in charge of the facility (Ben Kingsley, who needs to work with Scorsese more often, and Max Von Sydow) only forthcoming with information to the officers as it seems to suit them.
Daniels immerses himself in the investigation with unhealthy abandon, perhaps as a way to force back the memories of the recent death of his wife (Michelle Williams) at the hands of an arsonist, or, more troubling, to quiet the voices that constantly remind him of his own violent past, time spent serving out gruesome wartime justice to anonymous Nazi soldiers. Trapped on Shutter Island during a nasty storm, Daniels begins to let on to Chuck that he knows more about the hospital than anything they've learned while investigating Solando. There's a connection with Daniel's wife's killer and the institution -- a connection that Daniels is convinced leads to secret House Un-American Activities Committee-funded neurological experiments taking place in Shutter Island's nigh-impenetrable lighthouse.
The handling of this information is indicative of greater problems at work in the screenplay of Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder), adapting Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel. Daniels unloads soggy exposition about his wife's murderer, the island, and HUAC, in big, sudden chunks that seem to come from nowhere other than the plot demands these twists and turns exist. He just seems to know stuff when the film wants him to know stuff, and the more coincidental information he seemingly knows about the island, the more determined the folks who occupy the island seem to be in keeping him stuck there (yet letting him run free all over the facility).
This created a problem for me -- I became less interested in the mystery that moves the film, that of Rachel Solando, and much more interested in the "why" of Daniels getting the run-around from doctors and patients alike. I couldn't figure out to what end it would serve to have a U.S. Marshal come out to help with a dangerous situation, then have him stomp around the whole place hamstrung by selective lying on the part of the institution. The film loses focus as Daniels loses his focus (his preoccupation with the lighthouse superseding his drive to find Solando) -- creating situations that make you question your own suspension of disbelief over the questions at hand in the plot itself.
It's to the film's credit then that it answers all pressing questions by the time it reaches its finale, including those questions of "why" that I'd found distracting through most of the film's running time. If my brain hadn't been allowed to wander, trying to figure out character motivations in Kalogridis' convoluted script, I'm sure the wrap-up would've had a greater emotional impact on me. Scorcese certainly gets the best from DiCaprio in those final scenes, elevating what could've been a forgettable thriller into an exceptional performance piece.
DiCaprio's violent streak is utterly believable, though we never see it fully on display. There's rage in Teddy Daniels' eyes and a body language that speaks of high-blood pressure and binge drinking. He's perpetually sweaty and perpetually troubled, about a great many disturbing things, and it makes for an interesting contrast against everyone he comes in contact with in Shutter Island -- from the oddly peaceful Dr. Cawley (Kingsley) to the jovial alpha-male hospital guard played by Ted Levine (who attempts to verbally goad Daniels into violence during one of the film's most memorable scenes). If Shutter Island's delay to 2010 kept anyone out of the 2009 Oscar race, it was Leonardo DiCaprio.
Scorsese gets fabulous work from cinematographer Robert Richardson as well (as usual). Richardson lensed Casino, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator for this director, and the two, when paired, seem especially interested in playing with color palettes. Shutter Island's flashbacks and dreams are vivid beyond belief, offering an eye-popping respite from the grey, rain-soaked cliffs that so often fill the frame. Story quibbling aside, Shutter Island is high on atmosphere, in large part due to the visuals, and the collaboration between Scorsese and Richardson actually feels like the two men having a blast with their craft.
I'm certainly sure Scorsese is having fun. While I wouldn't describe Shutter Island as a "fun" movie, its B-movie roots show through with obvious abandon. Everything exists in a heightened reality here. Everyone is a little too sinister; the cops are a little too hard-nosed; the shadows loom a little too large. Shutter Island, despite all of its flaws, is not a career misstep for the director, just a bit of a sidestep. I have no doubts that Scorsese made exactly the film he wanted to make, with all its corkscrew logic and earnest intensity, but it's missing a bit of the visceral punch we're used to from a Scorcese work. Maybe we're a little bit spoiled?
Note: Shutter Island will arrive in theaters on February 19th, 2010.