Scorsese’s overblown scary movie nearly done in by excess
On the eponymous island of Martin Scorsese’s new movie, the patients and inmates have taken charge of the asylum, or so it may seem. That sounds like more of a spoiler than it really is, but it does catch some of the bad news emerging from this lavishly furnished venture into convolutedly spooky entertainment.
The flimsiness of the story, drawn from a Dennis Lehane novel and set in an isolated prison for the criminally insane, seems magnified by the elaborately stylish presentation. And Scorsese and a distinguished cast bring such an impressive array of movie-making smarts to bear on so much laboriously over-extended material that the very effort generates a nuttiness of another, and rather more discouraging, sort.
More’s the pity that Shutter Island is so immersed in madness, story-wise, and that there is so much method in the madness it means to dramatize. The basic story premise has a queasily agitated-looking fellow called Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio in a 1940s get-up of fedora and overcoat) arriving at the portentous-looking island prison/asylum with a similarly garbed partner named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). They flash federal agent credentials and announce they’ve come to investigate the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of one Rachel Solando, an inmate convicted of murdering her own children.
Teddy has a lot on his mind, not the least of which are the memories that haunt him from his role in the liberation of a concentration camp during World War II. And nothing seems quite right on the way into the prison/asylum. The sly-looking Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) gives the two men a rather ambivalent welcome to his domain, and Cawley’s prime colleague Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) calmly insinuates Germanic mad-scientist vibes into the mix in ways that seem especially alarming to Teddy.
By the time the ghost of Teddy’s dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) starts turning up, it’s evident that something really crazy is going on. Further on, Rachel Solando returns, first in one guise (Emily Mortimer) and then in another (Patricia Clarkson), and inmate George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley) emerges as someone tragically entangled in Teddy’s past traumas. By then, it’s become much too clear that somebody has got some very serious explaining to do. And the movie keeps compounding things long after some people at the Saturday afternoon screening I attended had begun making what would turn out to be some very good guesses about what that explanation would finally turn out to be.
Apparently, Leo the ageless teen idol, and Paramount Pictures’ frantic promotion of the horror-movie angel have more than saved the film from box-office disaster, but making such a big deal out of this story nearly wrecks the whole thing. Some of the classic auteurs to whom Scorsese pays passing homage in the course of this picture (Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell among others) would have told the same story in much more compact and therefore electric form, and never mind the ornately telegraphed explanations over more than two hours running time. Indeed, a couple of Scorsese’s tacit allusions here made me wish I was watching a 70-minute black-and-white horror/noir by Val Lewton—let’s call it “Shudder Island.”
As a misleadingly super-sized B-movie, Shutter Island’s overly impressive cast proves counter-productive in the actual event, and therefore ironically necessary as consolation when the whole enterprise runs into excessive narrative overtime. And, when all is said and done, the audience most likely to find real rewards here is one that can fall back on a sturdy appetite for cinephile parlor games.