BY ELIJAH SULLIVAN
There are certain plot twists that should have been retired a long time ago — and yet here is Martin Scorsese directing his first film since the Oscar victor “The Departed,” centered around a just such a twist. Based on a pulpy best-seller by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), and featuring a star-studded cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island” is anything but boring. But the requisite twist ending has divided audiences who can’t agree on whether the film is brilliant or a new standard for absurdity.
The answer? Both. The twist may be familiar to us all, but we’ve never seen a film like this. This is a great bad movie.
From the opening frames of the movie – a boat emerging from the fog backed by ominous Penderecki music – we know we are watching a Gothic filmmaking straight from the Stanley Kubrick playbook. What is surprising is how successful the film is at building atmosphere and tension. This is high camp, but Martin Scorsese milks it for every ounce of potential, which includes injecting the procedings with an unexpected pathos. After making dozens of films – many masterpieces, some not – Scorsese has supreme confidence behind the camera. Those expecting the maestro to be phoning in a cheap thriller will be impressed to find that “Shutter Island” has less in common with “The Departed” than it does with “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star as U.S. Marshals who travel to the titular island to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a creepy asylum for the criminally insane. It’s standard stuff, with red herrings pointing first at Ben Kingsley, then Max von Sydow, both playing sinister psychiatrists who may be using government research money to experiment on patients. From there the film veers from the lurid to the phantasmagorical, before the plot commits narrative suicide by arriving at one of the most groan-inducing twists in modern film history.
Credit is due all around for peerless production quality — from Robert Richardson’s delicious cinematography to the go-for-broke acting by DiCaprio and a fabulous supporting cast. DiCaprio in particular (and I never thought I would say this) anchors the film with a dedicated performance that requires him to navigate some tricky territory. He rarely steps wrong; if the film works at all, it’s because he and Scorsese worked tirelessly to lend the film some emotional weight. Under Scorsese’s guidance, DiCaprio has gradually traded in his pretty-boy image for the character-actor instincts of James Cagney, who he sometimes resembles.
The best B-movies of the past always disguised subversive ideas with a standard plot. An even greater accomplishment is smuggling subversive ideas into a modern A-budget film. The final moments of the film – if you don’t think them absurd – are effective in earning the story’s more ridiculous elements by anchoring it all in a stark portrait of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While the film is set in 1954, this is not another anti-McCarthyism cautionary tale so much as an attempt to purge the American psyche of the guilt it incurred during the Aughts.
You may find Scorsese’s mishmash of film noir and zeitgeist poignant or you may just howl with laughter – but either way, your trip to “Shutter Island” will be a memorable one. This is kamikaze filmmaking at its finest.
“Shutter Island” (2010)
R, 138min. Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley.