By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
More crawl-under-your-skin icky than scary, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” perpetrates a major, if not really novel, twist. Still, a stellar performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and great production values almost save the day. Too bad neither O. Henry nor his filmic heir, M. Knight Shyamalan, were aboard to engineer the movie’s big surprise.
It is 1954. DiCaprio’s Federal Marshal Ted Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are taking the ferry to Shutter Island, namesake of the institution for the criminally insane where a murderous inmate has recently escaped. These are macho G-men. But Ted is seasick, a presentiment hinting that even tough guys might have frailties.
Upon landing, the usual eeriness abounds. That building holds this sort of patient; over there is home to the highly dangerous; and that one, well, that’s a big hush-hush and don’t ask. Making matters more disconcerting, the rules demand that Ted and Chuck surrender their firearms. But the expository capper comes when they meet the big cheese.
Waltzed into the magnificently baroque chamber where Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley and his associate, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), sip wine and whimsically discuss the latest theories on madness, Ted is put on guard. What are these head shrinking fops playing at? Naehring’s accent sends him hurtling back to when he and his fellow GI’s freed Dachau.
This will become a recurring theme, Ted equating his discoveries on Shutter Island with perceived analogies from his war experiences. Yet for now, the first order of the day is to find Rachel Solando, the escapee who was incarcerated for drowning her three children. Oddly though, it appears to these high-class gumshoes that she has vanished into thin air.
In short, things are rotten in Denmark and they’re getting fishier by the minute. Interviews with guards, orderlies and patients seem to have been rehearsed. One inmate, perhaps not as loony as some, slips a note to Agent Daniels. It reads: Run. Rumors abound. It is posited that secret experiments are taking place somewhere on the isle.
But the kicker comes when Ted decides to explore the verboten areas of Shutter Island on his own. After risking life and limb by climbing craggy cliff, all the while pursued by his suspicious hosts, he makes a strange acquaintance. Compounding the fears his bizarre encounter raises, on returning he is told that the lost Mrs. Solando has now been found.
All that’s missing for good measure in this psycho-creepy atmosphere of evil vs. paranoia is a cameo by Vincent Price. It is the spooky stuff of a thousand B-movie thrillers. And doubtless the master filmmaker had fun etching his paean to this genre. Yet it is so exquisitely realized that, in surmounting its clichéd roots, it becomes an anomaly.
This film phylum is accustomed to a rag-tag, clanky-edged cachet unto itself…the kind of thing that simply reeks of low budget ghoulishness and near laughable dialogue. And so, as a result of “Shutter Island’s” expensive standards, we expect a better story, more intriguing divulgences and a world class coup de grâce that truly sends us reeling.
Nonetheless, Scorsese’s cinematic sleight of hand has its fascinations. And baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio— who at first looks like a little kid playing dress up—ultimately creates such a passionately wrought, noirish persona that it puts us on tenterhooks. But the lack of said knockout punch precludes adequate payment for our trusting anxieties.
Of course there’s no way you can know this until it is far too late…long after you’ve forsaken a trip to the concession stand as well as the facilities in hopes of that dramatic clincher. Which is why you need this review. Oh yeah, I guessed the finale, but with about ten minutes left on the clock. And even then I was wishing for yet another twist.
Thinking back, you try to recall if there were clues. There are strict rules to this sort of hornswoggling. Though the mind-boggling classic, “The Usual Suspects” (1995), lets fall the requisite breadcrumbs, you’d be a genius to pick up on them the first time. Whereas Scorsese’s approach is akin to the ploy that resolves it all with, “And then I woke up.”
Pity is all the ancillary goodies, such as Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo’s splendid supporting performances and the stunning art direction, can’t be put in a doggy bag to be saved for a better film. It’s a nice thought if you can afford illusions in your moviegoing decisions. But the sane and frugal option would be to slam the door on “Shutter Island.”
“Shutter Island,” rated R, is a Paramount Picture’s release directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams. Running time: 138 minutes
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