Why is Martin Scorsese using CGI cadavers, mountain cliffs and rainstorms in Shutter Island? Before he became resident window-dresser for the Leonardo DiCaprio boutique, Scorsese looked like an artist. Now, every film he has directed since hitching himself to DiCaprio has been overweening (Gangs of New York), purposeless (The Aviator) and unoriginal (The Departed). Those problems also wreck Shutter Island, a combo horror film/Hollywood pastiche, starring DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a very nervous WWII vet turned Federal Marshal. Since Leo is introduced with vomiting, this star vehicle deserves a grindhouse title: Shudder Island.
In the early 1950s, Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient at an island-based hospital for the criminally insane. With his partner (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels encounters creepy prison guards, inmates and seemingly mad-scientist psychiatrists (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow). Scorsese piles on insanity: Daniels’ periodic flashbacks to the Dachau death camp, then ghostly visions of his wife (Michelle Williams) who died mysteriously—but gruesomely—during peace time.
Victim of at least two holocausts, Daniels undergoes haunted-house trauma in a slow, relentless, bug-eyed manner while Scorsese treats the audience like rats in a CGI maze. Wherever the narrative is going, it barely comes to a point. As incredulity shifts into absurdity then repulsion then hopelessness, Shutter Island respectively salutes specific cinematic figureheads: Val Lewton for the heebie-jeebies, Sam Fuller for the topical tension, Roman Polanski for the demonic and, of course, Kubrick for a nihilistic finish.
What happened to the filmmaker once so attuned to his characters’ cultural experiences that Pauline Kael was moved in her review of Taxi Driver to exclaim: “Scorsese is just naturally an expressionist”? Shutter Island fails a deliberate attempt at horror-movie expressionism, yet this isn’t Scorsese’s first go at the genre. After Hours (1985) was similarly dour and hopeless. Bringing Out the Dead (1999, Scorsese’s last decent film) successfully blended personal hysteria with big-city realism. Both urban nightmares connected to Scorsese’s knack for the New York City fantastic. His singular gift for ethnic authenticity and pop stylishness gave genuine power to Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, even Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Shutter Island is a perfect example of Hollywood excess: It demonstrates a once-significant filmmaker decaying into a big-budget, poorly-motivated hack. Its story could have been told better if it were cheaper and shorter. But Scorsese has found himself flummoxed: cosseting DiCaprio, a genuine box-office attraction, as if expressing his own private concerns. But where Lewton, Fuller, Polanski and Kubrick were visualizing their personal issues, beatnik and hippie-era Scorsese stays emotionally distant from the WWII and the House Un-American Activities Committee crises that haunt Teddy Daniels.
It’s exasperating—and tasteless—for Shutter Island to pile concentration camp atrocities on top of medical and penal institution outrages, then bring in marital psychosis, mass murder and infanticide. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis interjects a couple of speeches about violence (“You are men of violence”; “God gave us violence”) which ring hollow in the work of a director who exulted in violence to expose macho anarchy. It’s a weak way to address the 20th-century’s horror, and Shutter Island itself makes a paltry metaphor for what’s gone wrong with modernity.
When Daniels argues about “moral order” to a fiendish guard, it’s just another of Scorsese’s altar boy hiccups. The scene of Daniels and his squad slaughtering a troop of Nazi P.O.W.s—staged entirely without feeling, as if boomer Scorsese had no consciousness of even the My Lai Massacre—makes it clear that he’s simply laying out clichés. Personal feeling has gone out of his filmmaking.
The time has come to ask Scorsese to move on: Perhaps become a producer and lend other, hungrier filmmakers the benefit of his vast cinematic knowledge and technical enthusiasm. As an artifact of the boomer generation’s imagination ruled by the Bomb, Communism, Social Welfare and Sexual Revolution—in the form of enigmatic, elusive, predatory females—Shutter Island is remote and formulaic. Not even tough enough to embarrass Tarantino’s glib take on history, Shutter Island suggests Scorsese has no reason to make movies other than relieving boredom.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 138 min.
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