In the December of 2002, Martin Scorsese released his decades in the making passion project Gangs of New York to an outstanding round of indifference. The film was generally seen as a disappointment by critics, and while it was nominated for ten Oscars it didn’t manage to win any of them. Since then, Scorsese has lightened up and basically used his skills as a master craftsman to be the most prominent director for hire among commercial projects made for adults. This pattern was established with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator and his cops and crooks crime thriller The Departed. Neither of these projects was particularly personal or wildly ambitious, but they were impeccably crafted and Scorsese was able to add a degree of depth to both seemingly breezy projects that other directors might not have bothered with. After The Departed became an Oscar winning triumph, Scorsese realized he was on to a good thing and now he’s followed it up with another glossy genre exercise in Shutter Island, a Hollywood thriller starring his new favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Set in 1954, the film begins on a slow boat ferrying passengers out to the titular Massachusetts island which is home to a federal mental institution whose patients are all violent offenders. The one of the passengers U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a splitting headache. He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to the island to help track down an escaped patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). The institution is being run by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who’s professional philosophy differs from his lobotomy/electroshock fixated peers and his mental hospital is meant as a testing ground for his more humane methods. But as his investigation continues, the doctors at the institution begin to seem increasingly uncooperative, as if they don’t want Solando to be found, as if they’re hiding something.
With this film Scorsese is unapologetically indulging his interest in noir and pulp trappings. DiCaprio is clad in a full Sam Spade outfit and wears it well while Ruffalo’s every line delivery is straight out of the noir sidekick handbook. The island itself fits perfectly into the sort of New England Gothic aesthetic (complete with a lighthouse), and the whole scenario feels like something out of The Most Dangerous Game and there’s something almost Lovecraftian about the way he combines setting, psychology and dread. This somber tone is of the utmost importance to the film and I suspect that generating this atmosphere was the primary thing that drew Scorsese to this material. As the movie moves on, this sort of oppressive tone will be the chief weapon that Scorsese uses to keep the audience on edge. Also adding to the atmosphere are a series of haunting and very well crafted flashbacks and dream sequences which use great special effects in order to make surreal dreamlike images.
DiCaprio, whose proving to be an actor who rarely disappoints, is always at his best when working with Scorsese and this film is no exception. I was a bit uneasy about his work in the first few scenes, but as the film goes on DiCaprio seems to ease into the role. He is again sporting a Boston accent as he did in The Departed and he seems to really be in his element when he’s playing a violent sort of streetwise type. Mark Ruffalo meanwhile has this sort of thankless task of playing a sidekick who is almost entirely reactionary, his lines rarely amount to more than “are you sure boss” and “if you say so.” It’s a character I would have liked to see written better.
Among the other characters in this all-star cast are Michelle Williams, who plays DiCaprio’s deceased wife in a variety of flashbacks and dream sequences, provides a pretty interesting presence and Emily Mortimer is also quite effective in her scenes. Jackie Earle Haley is playing to his strengths in a small but memorable part as an inmate and acting veteran Max von Sydow is simply overqualified for his small role as a creepy German psychologist. The one performance I would really take issue with is that of Ben Kingsley, an actor who seems to be really hit or miss lately and who seems to be on autopilot throughout this film. I felt no conviction from him throughout the film and he really brought nothing to his role.
The film inhabits a world in which no one including yourself is to be trusted, it’s almost Polanski-esque in its portrayal of Paranoia, the film’s central theme. As DiCaprio’s character progresses through the film he begins to break down, to question his surroundings and what’s real. The film walks this tightrope of paranoia and confusion really well for the better part of its running time, but is ultimately undercut by its final ten minutes. In the film’s penultimate sequence we’re given a pretty silly twist ending that’s explained with all the subtlety of the Fred Richmond speech at the end of Psycho. This ending doesn’t really add a lot to the film and it kills the ambiguity that it had inhabited so comfortably up to that point. Were I writing the film I would have avoided a simple explanation for the events and left the audience at a point where they are unsure whether or not DiCaprio’s paranoia is justified.
To many critics this ending will be the ultimate deal breaker but it certainly isn’t for me, because, frankly, I’m willing to forgive ten problematic minutes when the preceding two hours were as successful as they were here. The film’s story is mostly hokum, but this isn’t really a plot driven movie in the strictest sense, the goal is more to bring the audience along for the psychological journey of its protagonist. In this sense it is a psychological thriller in the purest sense; it keeps you on edge by, essentially, sending the character you empathize with further and further into the deep end. If you’re willing to go on this journey, the film will reward you, but don’t go in expecting this to be some sort of puzzle that you’re supposed to figure out before you’re supposed to because that will only end in disappointment. If nothing else, Scorsese displays a masterful grasp of tone, atmosphere, and visual design over the course of the film’s running time, and even though this is middling within Scorsese’s body of work, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
***1/2 out of Four