Martin Scorsese has made a habit of crafting films that employ genre tropes to illuminate the human condition. From “Raging Bull,” the sports movie that focused on the violent imperfections of human nature, to “The Departed,” a police procedural/gangland thriller that studied loyalty, betrayal, and identity in a disconcertingly harsh light, he has always found a way to push past the cliché, the obvious, and the mundane. With “Shutter Island,” Scorsese turns his attention to a new genre: the psychological thriller. A mind-bending, atmospheric film with a couple of vertigo-inducing twists and turns, “Shutter Island” nonetheless fails make a deeper statement in typical Scorsese fashion, and suffers for it.
Starring Scorsese regular Leonardo DiCaprio as the righteous but troubled federal marshal Teddy Daniels, the film is set in a hospital for the criminally insane off the coast of Massachusetts. A patient has recently escaped—“evaporated straight through the walls,” according to Dr. John Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley—and Daniels and a partner are sent to investigate. Of course, the story proves to be far more complicated and includes a number of subplots such as a revenge mission on behalf of DiCaprio’s murdered wife, and the ever-deepening suspicions that the hospital is more sinister than it appears.
From the opening, mist-shrouded shot, Scorsese sets a moody, foreboding tone. A score of crashing, discordant strings and staccato horns underpins a visual palette of slate grey and brown, only interrupted for several disconcertingly Technicolor hallucinatory sequences. Scorsese has ever been a master of setting the tone—see, for example, the perfectly balanced grime and gaudiness of “Goodfellas”—and “Shutter Island” is no exception.
The acting is similarly excellent. DiCaprio, who continues to grow as an actor under Scorsese’s tutelage, turns in one of his more powerful performances. Though his character may seem to fall into the standard trope of a hardened hero plauged by a traumatic past, DiCaprio effectively portrays Daniels’ spiraling instability as his perception of the world grows more uncertain. Meanwhile, Kingsley and the rest of the hospital staff exude a menacing solidarity that complements the film’s sinister audiovisual elements perfectly.
All that remains, then, is to mould these disparate elements around a central narrative. And this is where the film runs into trouble. The movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s novel which should have served as fertile ground for Scorsese to build a genre classic on, but instead “Shutter Island” stumbles into a forest of clichés. The first warning sign comes when the captain of DiCaprio’s ferry to the island requests that the marshals make their way ashore quickly. Asked why, he glances at the roiling grey sky and pronounces: “storm’s coming.”
There are far too many similar incidents—well-worn visual tricks like the slow, spinning reveal of a chair’s occupant, DiCaprio ludicrously sensing the presence of his wife’s supposed murderer by stating, “I can feel him,” and so forth. These jarringly trite moments punctuate “Shutter Island,” to the extent that it ends up feeling more than a little stale.
Attempts at the type of overarching themes that usually elevate Scorsese’s films are disappointingly cursory. Daniels’ violent tendencies lead only to a brief meditation—“God loves violence…it’s what we are,” declares the hospital Warden, musing on humanity—a mere shadow of Jake LaMotta’s trials in “Raging Bull.” Scorsese dabbles with a few bigger ideas, but never latches onto something really worth saying.
All that remains, then, is that final twist, the one guaranteed component of any film of this genre. “Shutter Island” pulls it off convincingly, in a heart-wrenching though overlong series of revelations which will leave even the most prepared audience members reeling.
It isn’t enough. As a pure-and-simple psychological thriller, “Shutter Island” should be lauded. It has all the necessary ingredients: a consistently dark tone, emotionally powerful reveals, and mind-bending twists aplenty. And from any other director, that might be enough to satisfy. But from Martin Scorsese, we have come to expect something more. We expect a coherent and thought-provoking message. We expect great ideas, new innovations, broken boundaries. We expect, in short, a film that is different, one that will stay with us well past the final fade-to-black. And it is this essential point where “Shutter Island” is found lacking. It is competent, but also vaguely utilitarian—fun while it lasts, but slight in lasting impact. And that, from Scorsese, is simply inadequate. —Staff writer Daniel K. Lakhdhir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.