Martin Scorsese has been letting us down for years, helming the sort of film that was roasted in 1992’s The Player, but which still gets made with a straight face in Hollywood and regularly crowned with laurels. It baffles that the man who was American cinema in the ’70s (and who’s demonstrated a good cinematic eye through his film preservation society, The Film Foundation) can’t seem to live up to his own reputation. Not since The Last Temptation of Christ (or maybe even Raging Bull, depending on who you ask) have all the parts crystallized in a way deserving of the title Master, at least by international standards. Misjudgments of casting, tenor, or script have bedeviled Scorsese’s work ever since, rendering supposedly Dramatic scenes silly and supposedly Serious performances laughable. But going into Shutter Island, one’s expectations should be keen. If Scorsese fails at the Dramatic and the Serious when the stakes are as high as they are in movies like Casino or The Departed, weaknesses get nullified when the underbelly genres step in and lower them. Thrillers are especially forgiving to directors who tend to overplay their hands, and the idea of a technician like Scorsese attacking an atmospheric spooker fills this critic with delight. Here’s a man, after all, who can direct a shot with skill and light a set with mood, who can collect whatever he needs for any project — and whose Cape Fear retread was a more than respectable entry into the genre.
Things looked good — they looked great — as the first act of Shutter Island played out, in part because a Scorsese film always looks good, production-wise. After accepting the fact that (once again) Scorsese was positioning a passable performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you can settle into what appears to be a high-toned Hammer Studio production — the kind that hosted Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing among its bats and belfries. It was, in fact, wonderful to see Scorsese’s rolling camera glance off the wrought-iron archway that frames the perimeter of an asylum as our hero enters — that shot is pure, unapologetic Hammer Gothic, only better executed. Shutter Island cobbles together that unmistakable Hammer checklist: a state-run penitentiary for the criminally insane perched atop thorn-covered cliffs; sinister brandy-sipping Europeans; dank cavern hallways and Victorian dens; storms, rats, and bad dreams; a period setting under moody skies; and — crucial to the whole — a Hammer-esque score ingeniously pieced together by Robbie Robertson (who surely had these old films in mind, if only half-consciously, as he made his selections).
And the hook is just right for such a fond recreation: two US Marshals (DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) approach Shutter Island by ferry, the former introduced to us in a state of distress as he deals with what’s passed off as seasickness. It’s 1954 and their pistols and fedoras are noirishly cocked. They’ve been assigned to investigate a troubling case: an inmate (Emily Mortimer) has “evaporated” from her locked cell, and management seems mystified about her flight from an inescapable island. But management — true to template — has a fell form. It’s embodied in Ben Kingsley as the hospital’s head psychiatrist, and in Max von Sydow, his exasperating colleague with a devilish streak (both actors are perfect Hammer types, a combination of charm and menace). The Marshals sense that something’s off, and so do viewers who’ve seen Session 9 and recognized the classic Massachusetts state hospital façade of a Danvers (now razed) or a Medfield (where this film was actually shot). Architecture (formal or organic) is an important metaphoric component in Shutter Island because — just as importantly — it generates such atmosphere. Architecture injects a shot of Gothic into Scorsese’s pseudo-noir, along with the Hammer-ish elements listed above, and the resulting pastiche is admirable even if there is no actual thrill or shudder as the movie runs its course.
With Gothic and noir pedigrees, the film has the means to offer up some stunning moments. Flashbacks to a Nazi officer’s lavish Dachau study arrest the eye with their red-on-red textures, their Gustav Mahler, and their dove-wing sheets of paper that whirl in the air as chaos squalls through martial order. DP Bob Richardson gives that scene a crowd-pleasing frame: birds-eye, oblique, and high-angle shots seem to spin or rotate even when they’re still, thanks in part to the situation and the score. This is the kind of imagery only a Master Director can build — we revel in it. It’s beautiful, and by film’s end its vertigo tinge also serves the story’s purpose. It’s not a wasted beauty, which is a hallmark of controlled direction. It’s too bad that the scene itself is about as inventive as, well, a scene out of a stronger Hammer movie—Scorsese’s version is just glossier and more full of itself and (as a result) somewhat more convincing. The problem with Shutter Island (which may not be a problem for some) is its earnestness — its Great Film and Master Director postures. Superb thrillers often emerge from the earnest school, just as they do from the ironic. But there’s a turgid space between these two styles that collects less fortunate projects which aim for one or the other and overshoot their mark. DiCaprio’s Big Emotional Moment in a lake — screaming at the sky — flies out earnest as you please but gutterballs, with little to no self-awareness, into camp.
Some have complained that Shutter Island strangles itself in its own loose ends, or that its ogre of a set-up devours whatever internal logic the film presents, but those issues are forgivable in a thriller, especially in hindsight (once its not-as-elusive-as-it-thinks-it-is mystery has played out). It’s okay if things are illogical in a movie about the pitfalls of the human mind — so is madness, and so are many fictions of trauma, false memory, and doubt. Rather, what muddies Scorsese’s near-crystal of a genre flick is its pretensions. Kingsley and Von Sydow — along with Patricia Clarkson as a fox-holed shrink and Ted Levine as an unpleasantly cracked guard — seem to understand the faulty nature of the script. They find that terribly faint hairline between Earnest and Ironic which such a script presents, and they straddle it with grace and glee, reminding us of the degree of skill it takes to act, and the degree of intelligence that such an enterprise requires. Tragically, histrionic DiCaprio does not; and if Ruffalo knew what was expected of him, he didn’t quite get there, either, delivering a safely flat performance. If, at movie’s end, DiCaprio’s over-exertions in the opening scene make sense — and can therefore be absorbed with an Ah, I see — there’s no overlooking the painful bore of the hero’s psychological straits, which are too trite to grab us. Scorsese’s puzzle box grows dull — not in terms of physical action (for there’s plenty of that) or in layered meanings, but in the scope of personalities; it’s emotionally limp beneath the tumult, like your garden-variety Hammer feature. Neither DiCaprio’s character nor performance are compelling enough to compensate for the narrative flaws which may have been imported from source. These flaws are negligible in movies that don’t demand so much of our acclaim, but — because he’s considered a Master Director — we can’t help holding Scorsese to a higher standard.