Back in 1991, when Martin Scorsese made Cape Fear, he figured out how to direct an unabashed commercial thriller that still had the flavor of his obsessions. The movie had a steady, tense, nearly Hitchcockian pull (watch it again — it’s better ? than you remember), but in Robert De Niro’s sneeringly nasty sociopathic redneck Max Cady, it also had a figure of dark force that tied it to Scorsese’s earlier, art-of-the-mean-streets masterpieces.
Shutter Island, a twisty gothic mental-asylum mystery set in 1954, primes you for some of that same triumphant Marty/Hollywood fusion. Adapting a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Scorsese works in a smoothly deliberate pictorial mode reminiscent of the Hollywood noirs of the ’50s, and for a while that style is classically enjoyable. Early on, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a U.S. marshal with narrowing eyes and a wary Boston edge, takes a ferry to Shutter Island, a rocky fortress off the coast of New England that houses a prison hospital for the criminally insane. The place is even more forbidding and isolated than Alcatraz, and with good reason: Nearly all of its 66 patients are violent psychopaths. Teddy is investigating the strange disappearance of one of them, Rachel Solando, who drowned her three children. As he questions doctors and inmates, all under the ambiguous gaze of the institution’s outwardly fastidious and liberal director (Ben Kingsley), it becomes clear that there’s much more to this case than one vanished killer.
Is there more to Shutter Island, though, than its steady visual/tonal craftsmanship and increasingly ? helter-skelter plot twists? What we want from this movie, I think, is a tricky and sophisticated mental-ward thriller that seduces us into a pleasurable vertigo of uncertainty. What we get is a tale dotted with vague portents of violence, ”heavy” themes (the ethics of psychotropic drugs, the spectre of nuclear war), and surreal images of Teddy’s memories of his wife (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire set by a negligent superintendent. The super may now even be a patient. As if the movie didn’t have enough backstory, Teddy is also a WWII veteran haunted by flashbacks to the liberation of the Dachau death camp.
On paper, Shutter Island is a nicely convoluted puzzle — The Shining with an extra helping of insanity. But Scorsese serves Lehane’s puzzle more than he makes it his own. His style is like visual frosting laid on top of a maze, as the film invites us to spend a plodding two hours and 18 minutes figuring out the method to its madness. Shutter Island holds you, but it doesn’t grip you. It’s as if Scorsese had put his filmmaking fever on psychotropic drugs.
He certainly gets an urgent performance out of DiCaprio, who has the tricky task of looking more rattled and confused the more he discovers. There are also ace turns from Kingsley, all watchful creepiness; Max von Sydow, as an eminently sinister German psychiatrist; and Mark Ruffalo, who as Teddy’s partner soft-pedals his usual testiness. Patricia Clarkson has a startling few minutes as an asylum refugee who’s a beacon of desperate rationality. Shutter Island is a mystery that’s out to summon a whiff of tabloid sensation, and at times it’s almost too stately, as if Scorsese thought the devices that propel the tale — ?visions of the Holocaust, murmurings of guilt and mind control — made this a ”personal” film. They don’t. The movie does have a payoff, though. And it works, shiveringly well. Shutter Island is hokum passing itself off as more than hokum, but it’s no accident that the resolution is so much better than the boggy middle. Only then can Scorsese stop pretending he’s making something important. B