(by Dustin Putman
"Shutter Island" is akin to a house of cards, ornate and aesthetically pleasing from a distance but so clumsy in its foundation and wobbly in its structure that it is never more than a light sneeze away from collapsing. Collapse, it does—and fast—in a bloated, overwrought tale that could very well be the weakest motion picture of renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese's (2006's "The Departed") career. Based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane (who has previously seen two other adaptations of his work, 2003's "Mystic River" and 2007's "Gone Baby Gone"), this asylum-set police-procedural-cum-psychological-thriller could just as well be a highly inferior remake of Brad Anderson's masterful 2001 chiller "Session 9," an airtight, thought-provoking minor classic that is far more authentically effective with only a miniscule fraction of the budget. By comparison or not—and, admittedly, there are too many similarities with "Session 9" to ignore—"Shutter Island" is a handsomely produced, well-acted folly that, come to think of it, also makes the frustrated viewer long to be watching 1967's riveting mental institution documentary "Titicut Follies," instead. Frankly, this effort is just a waste of everyone's time. Article continues below
Massachusetts, 1954. On an island off the coast of Boston Harbor sits the looming estate of Ashecliffe, a hospital for the criminally insane where patient Rachel Solando, a war widow who murdered her three children, has mysteriously gone missing. Out from the fog comes U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), sent to investigate the woman's disappearance and the staff's negligence in allowing her to escape in the first place. As a violent storm sets over the property and Teddy delves deeper into the strange goings-on surrounding head psychiatrists Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) and the institution they preside over, nightmarish visions and memories from his past come flooding back—most prominently, that of deceased wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), killed two years earlier in a terrible fire.
The opening scenes of "Shutter Island," with Teddy and Chuck arriving by ferry boat to the island and being driven up to the hospital by Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch), are instantly absorbing, powered by a bombastic, dread-drenched music score and stirring cinematography by Robert Richardson (2009's "Inglourious Basterds"). From these early moments, Ashecliffe is potently depicted as a place of mystery, foreboding and broken dreams. It also, not surprisingly, is home to more than a few fractured psyches, and as the investigation at the center of the plot gets underway—Teddy finds a note in Rachel's room posing the question, "Who is 67?"—director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (2004's "Alexander") begin spinning their wheels through oft-trodden territory. Anyone who has seen his or her fair share of movies and recognize genre conventions will be able to guess all of the picture's twists and turns virtually from the start as they proceed to get jerked around with little more than smoke or mirrors. Because nothing is supposed to be as it seems, everything, in fact, turns out to be exactly as one expects. The amount of spare subplots, shady supporting characters, and endless exposition turn tedious rather than intriguing as the 138-minute running time goes on and on, leading to a conclusion that is as empty and dissatisfying as it is blatantly obvious.
Leonardo DiCaprio (2008's "Revolutionary Road") has become Scorsese's go-to guy and practical muse in recent years, starring in the director's last four major films. It's easy to see why. He's a capable, confident, powerful actor, a genuine artist of his craft rather than just a movie star who gives every role he takes on his all. As the curious, seasick, inwardly tortured Teddy Daniels, DiCaprio does all that he can with a character whose development is scattershot, at best. When the narrative takes time out from playing games where facts get lost behind illusions, it finally conceives a moment that feels emotionally real and raw. Without revealing too many details, a third-act flashback between Teddy and wife Dolores that explains away the place he has presently found himself in is close to devastating and certainly haunting in a way the rest of the film has not. For this five-minute stretch of time, there are no stylistic tricks and no storytelling deceptions—just an unthinkably horrible, unblinking portrayal of the American Dream gone awry. Once the action, so to speak, picks up again in the picture's 1954 here and now, interest again dissipates as Scorsese continues to insult his audience with long-winded explanations of a flimsy plot that is inevitable even as it doesn't plausibly hold an ounce of water.
In addition to DiCaprio, the cast is first-rate; it's just too bad that there isn't more for them to do. As Chuck Aule, Mark Ruffalo (2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") mostly is asked to follow Teddy around the hospital as they sleuth for clues. Ben Kingsley (2008's "The Love Guru") and Max von Sydow (2007's "Rush Hour 3") strike imposing figures as seasoned veteran psychiatrists Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring, lording over the island from the kind of hawking mansion only people who have something to hide live at. Michelle Williams (2008's "Synecdoche, New York") does dark, dazzling work as the ill-fated Dolores, especially considering most of her scenes take place within dreams and hallucinations. Meanwhile, wasted beyond comprehension are Emily Mortimer (2009's "The Pink Panther 2") and Patricia Clarkson (2009's "Whatever Works") as two separate versions of Rachel—don't ask—as well as Jackie Earle Haley (2009's "Watchmen") and Elias Koteas (2009's "The Haunting in Connecticut") in nothing roles as George Noyce and Laeddis, respectively.
"Shutter Island" could have gone many different ways. It could have delved deeper and made a statement about the confusion over mental illness and the archaic, inhumane practices that went along with treating sufferers back in the 1950s. It could have come up with a better, less predictable outcome, one that doesn't crumble the moment one starts to deconstruct it in his or her mind. For that matter, it could have also played fair with the viewer and not turned the whole enterprise into a two-dimensional exercise in C-movie theatrics. Unsure of what kind of film it wants to be—if Scorsese was out to scare in the same way Stanley Kubrick did with 1980's "The Shining," he has failed miserably—"Shutter Island" stands as an exceedingly familiar, undernourished, overblown, too-safe production with a hollow core. Just because it looks and sounds good doesn't make it any less junky.