Shutter Island, the latest film from master director Martin Scorsese, opens with an eerie and ominous shot of a fogbank over a body of water and the slow emergence of a boat as it breaks through the fog to reveal itself. With an ominous chord of music accompanying it, this is a fitting and exciting way to open a film that promises to be filled with suspense. Alas, Scorsese maintains this level for a solid hour before he seemingly loses control of the film and that is very much a surprise. This is a good film that could have been a great film.
Scorsese, one of our best directors of the last thirty-five plus years, directs with an air of assurance and confidence that makes a film fan know from frame one you are in for a treat. This time Scorsese seems less assured in the back half of the film and it shows. This is especially surprising because there are more than a few moments where Scorsese seems to be borrowing from the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. And if you are going to borrow from another director why not make it someone in the class of Hitchcock?
Leonardo DiCaprio (working for the fourth time with Scorsese) stars as a Marshal who, along with partner Mark Ruffalo, boat to an island off of Boston that is nothing more than an insane asylum. Men are put in one building, women in another, and the most dangerous ones are put in a fortress that was used in the Civil War. The case is of a missing woman who is on the island for murdering her three small children. She has seemingly vanished into thin air. Her cell was locked from the outside, her cell was escape proof and she was seen after being locked back into her cell. DiCaprio’s character is carrying a lot of baggage of his own as he takes this case. In flashback we are shown him in the war as part of a platoon that liberated a concentration camp. His visions of the dead still haunt him. Also haunting him is the memory of his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams) whose tragic death in a fire still lingers in the marshal’s dreams.
On the island the marshals are instructed to give up their firearms and then meet two of the hospitals top doctors, played with relative ease by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow. Now let me ask you something. If you were to go anywhere and find people like Kingsley and Von Sydow running the place wouldn’t you get the feeling things aren’t quite right? DiCaprio does get the weird vibes right away while Ruffalo is more of a sensible partner who believes that no matter how hard you try, two and two will always equal nothing but four.
Interviews with inmates and the doctors’ reluctance to release files of the patients only add to DiCaprio’s concern that things are not quite right. Now at this point the film, based on Dennis (Mystic River; Gone Baby Gone) Lehaine’s novel, had me sucked in. Scorsese had built his story up through tension and atmosphere (the backdrop of an impending hurricane only adds to the ominous effect) but then something interesting happens. I started getting ahead of the characters and figuring some things out before they did. That is a bad sign for any movie but shocking for a Scorsese movie. Of course we know things aren’t quite what they seem and that is before we get some nice cameo work from both Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson in good scenes that seem redundant by the time they appear.
For me Shutter Island really loses control in the last half hour. A secret is revealed that may surprise some but may be obvious to others. This secret is not exactly what you would call a cheat but once you reflect on the action before it certain (but not all) things start to feel silly and contrived. I could see the logic of some of it but not as a whole. For the twist to be believable everything preceding it must fit and that simply doesn’t happen here. Did Scorsese see it differently? Am I missing something? Perhaps a second viewing is in order but I don’t doubt my thoughts and opinions right now. The last scene also contains a line of dialogue said from one character to another that is impossible considering the state of mind of the one saying it.
Still in all Shutter Island is not a bad film but one that should have been better, particularly when you have one of our best working directors at the helm. The performances (especially DiCaprio, Kingsley and Haley) are not surprisingly first rate. The music and photography set the tone for the film and there are moments of dread artfully achieved but I wanted this to be the Good Fellas of thrillers and it falls short. I suppose if this was any other director’s film I would have praised its first half more and not lambasted its second half so much but that’s the price you pay for greatness.
In the end Shutter Island is a well acted sometimes eerie mood piece but nothing more. Scorsese hit the target but missed the bulls-eye. I have no doubt he has another masterpiece (or three) left in him so this is a mildly entertaining diversion that every great director has taken on. Just try not to think about the ending too much.