Shutter Island is good, but not Scorsese’s best

Now, the question here isn’t whether or not Shutter Island is a good film — because it most certainly is. The question, given the director’s glowing repertoire and ’06 masterpiece, is whether or not Shutter Island is a great film. All things considered, Shutter Island finds Martin Scorsese sorely out of his element.

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a federally appointed U.S. Marshal who has been charged with an investigation on an island just outside of Boston harbor. He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are there to uncover the whereabouts of an escaped patient, but as the plot thickens Daniels realizes that greater evils are at work on Shutter Island.

Crazy · Mark Ruffalo (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio play U.S. Marshals sent to investigate a patient who escaped from an island insane asylum. - Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The conventions and mainstream ties are potent, perhaps more so than the ultimate payoff, which alludes uncannily to James Mangold’s Identity. Paramount Pictures’ advertising campaign is quick to remind us that Scorsese is at the helm of the franchise, and Shutter Island accordingly bears the director’s enormously powerful signature very prominently. The film is marketed just as much through Scorsese’s prestige as it is through DiCaprio’s image as a more serious actor. Despite Scorsese’s characteristic flourishes, the movie maintains a bothersome indifference toward his unparalleled vision.

From the Wes Anderson-esque tilts and quick-pans, which induce accidental laughter, to the schizophrenic — if symbolic — temporal design, Scorsese’s signature bleeds from the paper like ink in heavy rain. Only during the narcotics-induced flashback sequences do audiences remember why they loved the director in the first place, given his distinct handling of human tragedy and carnage. Of course, these sequences are inherently short-lived and often feel mismatched with the film’s conventional reality.

The political conspiracy elements of the film are handled with proper tact and obscurity, but the film might have been better off exploring those ends. That being said, the source material is appropriately eerie, and the complexity of the story should not be trivialized. The brilliance, as in many good mysteries, is found in retrospect. Ambiguity and arbitrary elements find their place in the overarching yarn, and their symbolic nature is especially impressive.

When watching Shutter Island, the effect is purposefully jarring. Hospital-like lighting coupled with jump cuts and hallucinations make for a psychological experience that fiddles with viewers’ nerve endings. The characters are fickle and two-faced, creating further anxiety in the audience, and the depth of the dialogue is mesmerizing. The film’s maturing superstar is also particularly believable, emoting palpable heartbreak that will hopefully be remembered during the fall awards season. Most unexpectedly, it is Scorsese who muddies the waters with indecisive direction.

In many ways, Shutter Island throws back to Alfred Hitchcock films of the 1950s and ’60s. The film, which is set in 1954, not only marks the year of Rear Window and Dial M for Murder but also contains several explicit allusions to Psycho and North by Northwest.

In all the commotion, Scorsese loses himself, and the movie suffers greatly for it.

Interspersed among various homages to Hitchcock is a sense of stylized violence, which paints characters with cherry-red blood and glorifies blood and guts. The effect — clearly intentional — is disorienting, given that the film’s setting is a mental asylum but not in the correct way.

Yes, schizophrenia is one of the main themes, and the movie was designed to waver aesthetically in order to convey feelings of delusion, but the end result is a movie that forgot what it was fighting for. Scorsese’s direction is uncertain, resulting in a more manufactured experience, with potential that falls by the wayside.

It’s as if he wanted to make a movie for Hitchcock and halfway through remembered it was his all along.

In these days of torture porn and Death at a Funeral remakes, it is invigorating to see a complex picture draw decent numbers at the box office. Moreover, when contextualized into the realm of popular cinema, Shutter Island is not only refreshing but leaps and bounds better than most. The rub is that Scorsese operates in a more exclusive league. Therefore, his work must be held to different standards. On those terms, Shutter Island is not only restrained but underwhelming, sputtering to the finish with conflicting visions in tow.

2 replies
  1. pae
    pae says:

    I think the beauty of the entire movie is you don’t know how to feel and you don’t know which to believe. You are very much in the mind of Leo’s character. Paranoid and stuck between two different things that both could very much be true. I called it very early on. The fact that it didn’t show him anywhere else but the Ferry and the Island. He has experienced Trauma. The Doctor said he does experimental procedures. Patients seemed coached. Just met his partner. And there wasn’t much to the movie unless he was crazy. Frankly, practically from the beginning I just felt that’s the only way it could have been.

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