Shutter Island reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
Feb. 18 2010 4:52 PM

I'm Surrounded by Crazy People

Leo DiCaprio scrunches his face in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island 

From the first frames of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (Paramount), something feels off. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), two federal marshals on their way to a forbidding island off the Massachusetts coast, seem like actors artificially transplanted from contemporary cinema into a quickie B-movie from the 1950s. When they reach the island, the site of a high-security hospital for the criminally insane, the setting is almost parodically gothic, with high blocky cliffs thrashed by pounding waves, a remote lighthouse sheltering unspeakable deeds, and a Civil War-era fort filled with babbling inmates and sinister wardens. As the marshals' investigation begins—one of the patients, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), has mysteriously disappeared from her cell—we don't know whether to prepare ourselves for a Silence of the Lambs-style psychological thriller or a Snake Pit-style exposé of abuses in the mental health system.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

The instability this first act establishes is entirely deliberate (which is not to say it's entirely successful): Teddy Daniels can't make out what sort of island he's on and what the asylum's officials have in mind for him; the audience can't make out what sort of movie we're at and what Martin Scorsese has in mind for us. An important difference, though, is that Teddy is driven at the cost of his sanity to ferret out the island's dark secrets, whereas we have a hard time working up the energy to care. Shutter Island is an aesthetically and at times intellectually exciting puzzle, but it's never emotionally involving. The movie is inert, despite the fact that it bombards us with lurid imagery and high-intensity stimuli: frozen Dachau victims, dying Nazis, beautiful child murderesses, abandoned graveyards besieged by hurricanes. Set piece after set piece makes you go, "Holy mackerel," but the entirety of the movie makes you go, "When's dinner?"

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It's impossible to say much more about Shutter Island's story without starting to spoil the twists, and this is a movie that lives and dies by its twists. The script, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane, traces a Vertigo-esque spiral. At that spiral's center is a revelation involving Teddy's long-dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), that's meant to be searingly honest but that came off, to this viewer, as tawdry Grand Guignol.

I'm not sure I buy Elbert Ventura's argument in Slatethat Scorsese is an establishment figure comfortably phoning it in. (Though I do agree with his premise that the great director's films have gone downhill in recent years. I haven't loved a Scorsese movie without reservations since Goodfellas.) While it's often not clear what Shutter Island is trying to do or be, it's made by an artist who's passionately engaged in his work. Nor is the movie a hollow exercise in style; Scorsese is out to ask the big questions, as becomes clear in a ponderously theme-summarizing exchange between Teddy and an asylum official: "There's no moral order at all. There's only, can my violence conquer yours?"

Shutter Island'smethod of cinematic pastiche reads better on paper than it does up on screen. Watching it, movie references pile up inside your brain: Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor is in there, certainly, and the cheapo tone poems of the B-movie master Val Lewton. (Scorsese has acknowledged both men as influences.) * But there's also John Frankenheimer, Alfred Hitchcock, and, in the visceral, color-saturated dream sequences, David Lynch. The use of music underscores this patchwork quality: Rather than commission an original score, Scorsese had Robbie Robertson of The Band (his frequent musical collaborator) put together a soundtrack made of bits and pieces from 20th-century composers, from Marcel Duchamp (!) to Morton Feldman to Brian Eno. The problem isn't the multiplicity of influences and sources; it's that we never understand to what purpose all this hectic citation is being deployed.

Welcome faces pop up in secondary roles: Ben Kingsley as the institution's ambiguously motivated director; Max von Sydow as an ex-Nazi psychiatrist; Jackie Earle Haley as a tormented but strangely lucid inmate; and, tantalizingly briefly, Elias Koteas (made up to look like a Robert De Niro double) as a guy who—well, if I were to describe his existential status in the movie, the whole game would be blown. But the fact that it's energizing to see even a fake De Niro's craggy face emerge from the shadows only points up the deficiencies of Scorsese's leading man. *

Leonardo DiCaprio is not without talent, but how did he come to be Martin Scorsese's muse? The type of role Scorsese loves to craft for him is just the sort he's most unsuited to: the anguished but streetwise tough guy with his collar turned up to the wind. Beneath the Robert Mitchum mannerisms and carefully cultivated Boston accent (dusted off from his role in 2006's The Depahted), DiCaprio still seems like a pudding-faced little boy, alternately sullen and giddy, a little too eager to be loved (his best performances, to my mind, are still in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Catch Me If You Can). The photo at the top of this review captures the classic expression of Leo trying too hard: All his features migrate to the middle of his face and just sort of crouch there. In the movie's press notes, Patricia Clarkson (who appears briefly as an oracular figure in a cliffside cave) praises DiCaprio's energy as an actor: "I loved working with him because he gives 2000% on every take." If Marty insists on casting Leo as his leading man next time, he should take him aside and advise him that that's 20 times too much.

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Slate V: The critics on Shutter Island and other new releases

Correction, Feb. 18, 2010: This article originally misidentified Elias Koteas as Robert De Niro and Val Lewton as a director. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

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