REVIEW: “Shutter Island” (**1/2)

Posted by · 8:54 pm · February 13th, 2010

Shutter Island

Berlin International Film Festival

(EDIT: Star rating adjusted upon consideration.)

To filch an aphorism from Mike Skinner, “Shutter Island” represents of continuation of Martin Scorsese’s decade-long quest to find the hardest way to make an easy living.

If that sounds like a jab, it’s not. Since the self-amusing personal statements of “Kundun” and “Bringing Out the Dead” perplexed far more than they pleased, Scorsese has weaved over to the middle of the road, flirting with broad Oscar-bait and crowdpleasers (successfully marrying the two in “The Departed”) while playfully maintaining an auteur’s consistency of theme and aesthetic.

It’s a tricky game to play, and when the elements align, it can work to smashing effect — as in “The Departed,” a nifty pop movie-movie winkingly intended as the prototypical “Scorsese film” that casual cinemagoers attributed to him, but that he’d never actually made.

When they don’t, however, you get “Shutter Island,” a film awash with beauty and trademark stylistic flourishes, attached to a narrative that he never seems all that into. A near letter-faithful adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s pulpy source novel, itself something of a genre lark for the author, it surprises principally by offering more intrigue as a Scorsese picture than as an entertainment. As an artistic investigation of B-movie construction, it has all the impeccable craft, and a measure of the cinephile intelligence, of “The Departed” or “Cape Fear”; but a lot of the fun is missing.

The vastly underrated “Cape Fear” is, as always appeared to be the case, “Shutter Island”‘s closest sibling in the Scorsese oeuvre: a depersonalized experiment in Grand Guignol horror, its mind as much on other, older movies than anything written in the script.

“Shutter Island” shares the 1991 film’s occasional balls-out strangeness – most notably in a dream sequence of lusciously kitsch staging that teases a more vivid and disorienting work entirely – but sorely lacks its wit, a crucial omission when negotiating the extravagantly silly mechanics of Lehane’s plot. And where “Cape Fear” tied its genre games to a piercingly nasty examination of family life in post-Reagan America, the new film really isn’t about anything beyond its own puzzle: once completed, there’s little payoff beyond the satisfaction of having reached the maze’s end.

Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter IslandTaken as a fairground ride, then, “Shutter Island” isn’t bereft of loopy pleasures while it lasts. The film is particularly tight and alluring in its opening act, which establishes the players and the game with pleasing swiftness, elegantly assembling information while planting sly bonus hints for the keen-eyed.

But as Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist, a federal marshal on what initially appears to be a missing persons investigation, loses grip on the situation, the storytelling follows suit. Scorsese concocts almost apologetically elaborate atmospheric setups for numerous scenes hinging on prosaic verbal exposition; a resplendently designed sequence in the dankest ward of the mental hospital in which the film is mostly set drips with gleeful Gothic scaremongering, none of it in the wordily informative encounter it finally enables.

I’m admittedly not well-placed to comment on the effectiveness of its axis-shifting plot twist, having anticipated its arrival from the outset – the film doesn’t suffer in comparison to its literary source, but doesn’t reward familiarity with it either. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis actually does a better job than Lehane of guarding details that threaten to prematurely unravel the enigma, only to undermine her own effort with a notably botched reveal that conveys dense psychological flips in banal “Murder, She Wrote”-style bullet points.

With the script so unmoored, it’s no surprise that the spectacular cast comes at it from a range of angles, in apparent disagreement as to the film they’re in. Patricia Clarkson, for example, dives in with campy, wild-eyed commitment to the B-movie cause, but this kind of kerr-azy cameo playing is oil to the water of Michelle Williams’s more abstracted intensity. Somewhere in the middle, Ben Kingsley enjoys himself with oleaginous semi-villainy.

There may or may not be a narrative rationale for the film’s more arch supporting turns; either way, at its center, DiCaprio isn’t given much in the way of a foil. So limber and responsive in his last two collaborations with Scorsese, DiCaprio is here instructed to begin the film at his most dramatically clenched, leaving the performance little room to grow.

Still, it’s impossible to come away empty-handed from a Scorsese picture. Here, where the jerky storytelling and scattershot ensemble leave voids on the canvas, Scorsese fills them in with brazen, sporadically brilliant filmmaking bravado. No prizes for guessing that Hitchcock — “Vertigo,” most prominently — is top of the director’s reference list, but the expertise of the pastiche can dazzle all the same, even in set pieces as well-worn as DiCaprio’s cliff-face clamber.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams in Shutter IslandWorking from the same memo, Robert Richardson’s camera obliges with imperious swoops and a richly saturated palette. The real technical star here, however, is music supervisor Robbie Robertson, who has assembled a remarkable Herrmann-echoing score from cannily overlapped selections of existing works from a panoply of sources ranging from John Cage to Brian Eno to Max Richter. (Wastefully buried in the closing credits, meanwhile, an orchestral remix of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” is one of the most gorgeous things ever to grace a Scorsese soundtrack.)

Sensually overwhelming and intellectually undernourished, then, “Shutter Island” finds Scorsese positioning himself as the star more than in any of his mainstream works of the past decade. Part of me thrills to see him commanding his medium so aggressively; a grumpier part wonders why he chose such shallow material in order to do so.

Even taking aside the glaring flaws that keep it well below the ranks of a “Cape Fear,” it would be easier to enjoy the film as a cheerfully disposable potboiler were there not such effort and occasional artistry in its construction. (And, if we’re being quite frank, had we not been kept waiting for it for nearly four years). But a potboiler, by definition, should abut something more selfishly subversive – with his formal gifts still bright, America’s greatest living filmmaker has by now earned the right to make one for himself. Scorsese the showman has delighted us long enough.

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60 responses so far

  • 1 2-15-2010 at 5:40 pm

    austin111 said...

    Why does Scorsese continue to work with DiCaprio? I think he actually enjoys working with actors with whom he feels most comfortable. DeNiro was one. In fact it was DeNiro who told him he should work with DiCaprio in the first place. Then there is the mentor thing. I’m thinking he enjoys that aspect as well. Kind of a father/son thing. Scorsese has no sons, btw. When you see the two together or greeting each other, there’s clearly some real affection between them. Just human nature, I guess. I don’t think it means Scorsese will only work with DiCaprio, though. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they did again.

  • 2 2-15-2010 at 5:43 pm

    Maxim said...

    Well said, austin.

  • 3 2-16-2010 at 5:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Austin111: My change had nothing to do with the film is being received (it’s too early even to say what the consensus is). As others pointed out, the initial rating didn’t square with the review. I assigned it in a hurry, and in the clear light of morning, decided I’d made the wrong call, especially with relation to other ratings I’ve given. I’m afraid I’m not very good with stars.

    Rob: I’m not mocking “Kundun” and “Bringing Out the Dead” at all — I have a lot more time than most for the latter, in particular. I was merely referring to their general reception.

  • 4 2-16-2010 at 8:55 pm

    austin111 said...

    Yes, I’d agree that stars are a poor way to rate anything really. Your review was schizophrenic, though, if you’ll excuse my use of that term. I think you aren’t too sure even now how you felt about the film from what I could tell in your review. Still, some films can shift in perception over time, I’m sure you’d agree. One way or the other. Nothing is writ in stone when you have a medium like film. It might be easier to admit that a certain film just didn’t connect with you at the time you saw it than to even try to make sense of it.

  • 5 2-17-2010 at 2:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m really not sure why the review seems schizophrenic to you, as opposed to simply mixed — it’s not unusual to be wowed by craftsmanship and disappointed by storytelling at the same time. And I assure you that it’s not a difficult film to make sense of, especially with prior knowledge of the novel.

    But I really do appreciate the feedback.

  • 6 2-18-2010 at 9:00 pm

    kid said...

    Has Kris seen this film? I’d be interested in seeing whether you two had a strong difference in opinion.

  • 7 2-20-2010 at 12:29 pm

    Bob McBob said...

    Why did you lower your rating half a star, Guy?

  • 8 2-20-2010 at 12:42 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Because I assigned the initial rating in haste in the early hours, and it really didn’t square with the review.

  • 9 3-13-2010 at 8:36 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    It’s amazing to me how many people have been so forgiving to Shutter Island, even calling it a masterpiece.

    It has to be name recognition. If this were directed by M. Night Shyamalan I think many critics would be singing a different tune. That’s the ONLY explanation I can think of right now for how a movie this bad could have such a dedicated following right off the bat.