There’s a huge dollop of conventionality at work in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” — but it’s hard to say whether that emanates from the story’s particular backdrop (suit and fedora-hatted mid-1950s) or Scorsese’s own, atypical lapse into connect-the-dots storytelling. Not to say that conventionality is bad per se. In this case it works in the story’s favor (adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane), enhancing the dank creepiness and tinging the atmosphere like the smell of bad sewage on a rainy day.
Despite the Scorsese brand logo, the unveiling of “Shutter Island” took an awfully long time — even in the United States, the actual release date did a sizably lengthy skid from the originally announced October 2009 date to just last month. Though the wait didn’t do any damage to box-office sales, the reviews from the U.S. were generally unfavorable, even harsh — echoing perhaps, the feel-bad tones of the whole package.
“Shutter Island” plunges the characters (and the audience) into a relentless slushy vortex of guilt, regret and night sweats, and there’s not one moment of relief. If you happen to have low blood pressure, the very effort of sitting through the 130-plus minutes of such tension could result in an emergency trip to the nearest masseuse. In fact, make a booking now — you’re gonna need it.
Appropriately, the movie opens with Ted Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) retching into a tin toilet during a rough bay crossing. Ted, a U.S. marshal (“mahshal” according to his Massachusetts twang) is accompanied by his underling Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), as they head toward Shutter Island, some kilometers off Boston harbor. The assignment is to investigate the disappearance of a woman who has escaped from the isolated island’s institution for the criminally insane.
A World War II veteran plagued by harrowing memories of Dachau concentration camp and still mourning his wife (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire two years ago, Ted is irritable and overwrought. His nervous energy puts everyone working in the institution on edge, and the orderlies and nurses are immediately surly and uncooperative. Heavily armed security guards posted every few meters of the grounds treat Ted like an intruder, while the warden/psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), alternates between soothing Ted with aspirin and whisky, and hotly defending the raison d’etre of his institution.
Scorsese is at his best when creating portrayals rather than portraits — “Gangs of New York” and “Goodfellas” chewed up entire organizations and spat them out in jagged pellets, demonstrating his technique of splitting the story into masterful vignettes without any disruption to the main, coursing flow. “Shutter Island” on the other hand feels static and lifeless, the story weighed down by the director’s self-imposed restrictions (you can almost see the yellow “Keep Out” tape), tightly focused on, and keeping everything inside the skull and skin of just one guy.
“Shutter Island” is Ted Daniel’s head trip, his obsessions make the story. But that reserve is exhausted in the film’s first hour and what we are left with are re-treads of those obsessions. Repetitive doesn’t begin to describe it, it’s a good thing Ted is on Shutter Island and not at a cocktail party. Here at least, Chuck and Dr. Cawley listen to Ted’s stories, though neither look very happy about it.
DiCaprio has his hands full in giving his rendition of a man who’s neither demonically deranged nor infused with benevolence, and his Ted weighs heavily on the senses. The magnitude of Ted’s disturbing memories and hallucinations belie the ordinariness of his demeanor. Without the rota of painful intrusions, he appears to lack romance, drama and passion — he is simply a not very interesting man in a suit, hounded by work obligations. When he finally exposes an actual brutal side to himself by beating up a guard, the incident feels forced, like a bum-note tacked on at the end of a sonata.
In other movies, this might have been interesting, but in “Shutter Island,” it just serves to alienate Ted, and subsequently the story, even further from the audience. At one point he takes off his tie (a gift from his wife) and uses it as a fuse to blow up a car. “I love this because you gave it to me” he says, “but it is f–king ugly tie.” At that moment Ted makes a fleeting emotional connection to a comforting past, one good memory, and then lets go — a phone receiver left off the hook.