Martin Scorsese’s latest potboiler bears the unmistakable markings of a classic film noir. Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air and tendrils about the characters, almost taking on a life of its own. Dream sequences become engulfed in flames and smoke. The camera lingers on one character taking a drag off of a cigarette and inhaling the smoke directly into his nostrils.
The smoke is so pervasive that I kept thinking there has to be a reason for it, beyond atmosphere. My conclusion is that the smoke is an allegorical symbol for “smoke and mirrors”, quite apropo because on Shutter Island, nothing is as it appears.
Leonardo DiCaprio (with a thick Boston accent) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal who has been summoned to the mysterious Shutter Island, a foreboding chunk of land surrounded by rocky precipices. This makes the island ideal for housing dangerous and severely disturbed psychiatric patients. The movie takes place in 1954, when psychiatric patients were routinely given lobotomies, and other “treatments” were inflicted that are considered unethical and inhumane today.
Teddy is partnered with Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), and the two are investigating the disappearance of one of the female patients under dubious, if not supernatural, circumstances. One of their first encounters is with the director of the mental facility, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who explains that the island is his attempt at a more humane way of treating patients. Since they can’t escape, inmates are allowed to work as groundskeepers and enjoy other freedoms.
However, Teddy and Chuck soon find out that there are some sinister things afoot, and Teddy frantically tries to uncover the truth about what is really happening on the island. During his investigation, he is plagued by migraines, haunting dreams about his dead wife (Michelle Williams), and strange visions and flashbacks to traumatic memories of World War II.
One of the staff members looks exactly like a Nazi he remembers, and Teddy begins to fear that everything is a conspiracy to keep him on the island. A hurricane that keeps him from leaving the island only heightens his paranoia.
Shutter Island certainly takes its sweet time getting to the answers, and your enjoyment of the film will hinge on whether you have the patience for the deliberate pacing (in harsher terms, its sloooow.) The movie certainly isn’t bad, it just isn’t nearly as good as I hoped it would be. I read the book by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) in 2003, and it blew my mind. I absolutely devoured it in a few days.
The movie really lacks the zip of the novel, and the urgency to find out the answers is squandered here. Scorsese clearly chose to go in a different direction, and that is certainly his prerogative, but in my opinion the movie suffers from slow pacing and overlong run time.
I still marvel at the way Scorsese creates atmosphere (smoke, shadows, buildings, storms.) There are some genuinely creepy moments, but they are too few and far between.
The acting is top notch, and DiCaprio does a great job of bringing Teddy to life. It is a harrowing role to play, and he nailed it. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine are all good, no complaints there.
I guess I was just hoping for a little more pulse-quickening payoff and less build up to get there. At the end of the day, I’d say this is an average movie from a far from average director.