A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and then wrapped again in a faux-trippy, discombobulated script, this is a film that leaves the viewer with a lot of questions. Foremost among them is why Martin Scorsese would waste his time on it. Maybe cranking out great art gets old for a director of his caliber, and it’s fun every now and then just to sit back and serve up the cheese.
Extra cheese, in the case of Shutter Island. Leonardo DiCaprio teams with the filmmaker for a fourth time and stars as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), apparently has been assigned by the agency’s Boston bureau to the B-Movie Homage beat.
We sense this at once, as the opening act features a trenchcoated, fedora-sporting Daniels arriving by ferry under a threatening sky at an asylum for the criminally insane on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Nowhere but in gothic thrillers do such edifices exist. A sprawling former Civil War fortress retrofitted in the ’50s to serve as a high-security madhouse, Ashecliffe Hospital is the kind of place where you just know the people in charge are more dangerous than any of the patients.
The officers have been sent to investigate the inexplicable escape of a woman who drowned her children; she fled from a barred room bolted from the outside and monitored around the clock. It’s a tantalizing puzzle. Too bad it’s a narrative red herring. The movie’s less about what’s going on in the hospital than about what’s happening in Teddy’s head.
No sooner have DiCaprio and Ruffalo landed on the island than the skies open up. In dark-and-stormy-night tradition, a Class 5 hurricane traps everyone in the catacombed facility and cuts off communication with the outside world. This leaves the pair pretty much at the mercy of their hosts, who — wouldn’t you know it — turn out to be a couple of sinister cartoons.
Ben Kingsley hams it up as head shrink Dr. Cawley. He puffs on his pipe and boasts about being too humane to lobotomize patients while oozing reptilian evil. And he’s a Boy Scout next to Max von Sydow’s Dr. Naehring, who, Daniels is convinced, harbors a hidden Nazi past. As the night wears on and bizarre rumors reach the marshal’s ears, he commences a by-the-numbers descent into madness.
Daniels has hallucinations starring his wife (Michelle Williams), who died in an apartment fire, and flashbacks to atrocities he witnessed as a soldier during the liberation of Dachau. He experiences dread and paranoia related to the Cold War and the atomic bomb. Scorsese throws in visions of several wet, dead children for good measure. Has DiCaprio been drugged? Is the whole thing a figment of his imagination? Are the mad doctors messing with him to cover up illegal experiments they’ve conducted on patients? Could Dennis Lehane’s novel — on which the movie is based — possibly be this cluttered and incomprehensible?
Let’s be honest: Had anyone else made a movie this self-indulgent and overwrought, the critical reaction would have been completely different. Reviewers, however, seem to feel obligated to cut Scorsese slack, and this does not do potential viewers any favors.
To help his cast get a feel for the sort of neo-noir exercise he had in mind, the director showed them such genre chestnuts as The Haunting, Laura, Out of the Past, The Innocents and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Stylistic references to these pictures are recognizable throughout. The strategy backfires on Scorsese, I think. If they’re anything like me, a lot of audience members are likely to spot the allusions to these films and wish they were watching one of them — any one — instead of Shutter Island.