Leonardo DiCaprio’s affected Boston accent is the most obvious parallel between “Shutter Island” and director Martin Scorsese’s last narrative feature, “The Departed,” but the two films also share a deeper connection: They’re both genre pieces that would’ve gotten a lot less prestige if Scorsese’s name hadn’t been attached to them.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Departed” is a good movie. It’s unlikely, however, that a basically conventional crime thriller would’ve won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars if the Academy hadn’t still felt guilty about letting “Raging Bull” lose back in 1980. I don’t know how “Shutter Island” will fare at next year’s Oscars (although I’ll guess not well, even considering its obligatory Holocaust references), but in this case Scorsese’s Great Artist status is written all over the filmmaking. The problem is, this should not be a Great Artist film.
Don’t take my word for it. Examine the plot, which revolves around US Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) traveling to an insane asylum on the titular island in order to investigate the seemingly inexplicable disappearance of one of the inmates. (No, Shutter Island isn’t a real place, although it was inspired by Boston Harbor’s Long Island.) Daniels gets trapped on the island by a big ol’ storm and begins to suspect that the asylum’s doctors are performing creepy experiments on the patients. And if all that wasn’t schlocky enough, the ending puts forward an illogical this-changes-everything twist which audiences should be able to see coming from several miles away.
Of course, a cheesy plot doesn’t automatically doom a movie. After all, “Daybreakers” was about a world run by vampires, and I friggin’ loved that movie. The problem with “Shutter Island” is that it doesn’t seem to recognize how ludicrous its own story is. Scorsese treats the material with the seriousness you’d expect for the biopic of a civil rights leader, and he’s got the production values to match.
In some respects, the film’s seemingly unlimited resources are an advantage. Any movie would benefit from drawing a cast featuring the likes of DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow and Patricia Clarkson. Also, the cinematography, by industry veteran Robert Richardson, gives the island a nicely eerie, rustic atmosphere. In fact, the visuals are probably the strongest aspect of the movie, especially during Daniels’ many dreams and hallucinations. These allow Scorsese and Richardson to really cut loose and mess around with swirling debris, ghostly children and cigarette smoke that moves in reverse.
On the other hand, a director with less clout would have been told that this movie is too long and too talky, and rightly so. Far too much of the running time is taken up by endless scenes in which Daniels discusses the spooky goings-on with an island resident, one-on-one. The person Daniels is talking to is often placed in a visually appealing context–wreathed in shadows or partially obscured by flames, for instance–but a visually appealing talking head is a talking head nonetheless. All the dialogue might have been acceptable if it approached some deep meaning, but it doesn’t. It’s just exposition in the service of an unrealistic and clichéd concept.
Still, it’s February, so it’s not like the multiplex is hoppin’ with masterpieces. “Shutter Island” is flawed and forgettable, but it’s an entertaining enough way for those who aren’t interested in “Valentine’s Day” or “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” to get away from the cold for two hours and eighteen minutes. Just don’t go in expecting another “Taxi Driver”–or, for that matter, another “Departed.”