By Rex Reed
Making important, sometimes even unforgettable, movies is something for which Martin Scorsese seems potty trained. Shutter Island is not one of them. Dense, ridiculously over-plotted and painfully over-long, this gruesome thriller set in a fogbound insane asylum is incomprehensible and fatally flawed, but having said all of that, I will also say this: It never seems anything less than the work of a skillful film buff. Scorsese may be a smart aleck, but he’s a professional smart aleck
Teaming with frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) and writer Dennis Lehane (Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River), the director tries his hand at the hair-raising thriller genre. The year is 1954, at the height of the Cold War. Out of the fog, a ferry boat materializes, carrying two federal marshals named Teddy (a seasick DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) on their way to the remote Shutter Island off the Massachusetts coast to find a dangerous female patient who has escaped from Ashcliffe, an asylum for the criminally insane. Almost immediately, they are confronted by Gothic horrors inspired by Titicut Follies and plunged into a Thorazine nightmare that fishes for logic with a red herring on the end of every hook. From the evil staff of resident doctors led by Ben Kingsley and especially Max von Sydow, as a Nazi who may have performed medical experiments at Dachau, to the escaped psychopath who murdered her three children (Emily Mortimer), the two cops are up to their Humphrey Bogart hats in paralyzing terror. It’s 11 miles to the nearest land, and the water surrounding the island is sub-zero. Since the terrain is overgrown with poison ivy and thorns, escape on foot is impossible. Meanwhile, DiCaprio seems none too stable himself. Migraine headaches, flashbacks to Hitler, concentration camps, and his dead wife (Michelle Williams) who burned to death in a fire. That kind of thing. Thickening the gumbo, Scorsese adds more patients—the firebug who killed her, a female psychiatrist hiding in a cave, and various prisoners chained to their cells in the violent ward who claim the hospital (financed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee) is doing to the patients on Shutter Island what the Nazis did at Dachau. While the movie becomes more preposterous by the micro-minute, DiCaprio is confronted with the realization that he can’t trust anybody, and one (or both) of the cops is an imposter. Cue the rainstorm, with howling, gale-force winds and thrashing lightning.
Scorsese cuts between the down-to-earth criminal investigation and the surrealism of the psychological nightmares with so much detail that you can no longer separate fantasy from reality. The storm builds to a hurricane and you wait with anxiety to enter the dreaded lighthouse, where the doctors perform pre-frontal lobotomies with icepicks, and DiCaprio is the next victim. From here, Shutter Island is less like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and more like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
How could this many talented people get so utterly, confoundingly messed up? How could a director considered such an icon demonstrate so little control? He knows where to put the camera and what to do with actors in numbingly worthless roles. I really admire the work he’s done to preserve classic films and teach unschooled directors about straight-ahead narrative filmmaking. But Marty-love has created a disturbing dark side. He’s blended the elements he loved in film noirs and horror genres with mainstream moviemaking, to the detriment of movies. It’s a sorry use of his power. The result may appeal to vacant-eyed Scorsese fans too arrogant or embarrassed to admit they don’t have a clue what’s going on here. He spearheaded this mess and when he lost his compass, it started to look like he was too trapped financially to pull the plug. It looks like a committee made it up as they went along; when it still didn’t work in time for Christmas, 2009, he went back and screwed it up some more. Too bad. Before it self-destructs, Shutter Island keeps you riveted.
This is usually my kind of movie. If only it made sense. The first hour is as savagely disturbing as any horror movie ever seen, but at more than two and half hours length, the ice cubes it sends through the bloodstream begin to defrost. In the end, you feel lost and doomed, and you will never know why. The theme is insanity, and by the time this ordeal ends, you feel it’s catching.