When Scorsese makes a new film, the question is less whether it’s good than whether the decision to make it in the first place was good.
Let’s be honest with ourselves about Martin Scorsese the way we’ve learned to be honest about his once-favorite collaborator, Robert DeNiro: His best work is well behind him. It isn’t that Shutter Island, Scorsese’s new Leonardo DiCaprio thriller, is a terrible movie; it isn’t. But like many great artists who outlive their inventiveness, Scorsese begins every new project by gazing up at the impossible heights of his own best work. Those waiting for another Scorsese masterpiece—something along the lines of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or even a minor classic like After Hours — simply need to adjust their expectations. The style will always be there; the intensity is gone. Indeed, when Scorsese makes a new film, the question is less whether it’s good than whether the decision to make it in the first place was good.
Shutter Island finds Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio), a US Marshall, heading to the mental institution on the titular island in 1954. It seems one of the inmates (Emily Mortimer) — or patients, as the hospital’s head, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), insists on calling them, despite a decidedly penal atmosphere — has vanished from her cell. Naturally, she’s violent and dangerous, and naturally her method of escape and whereabouts are a complete mystery. The island has been searched thoroughly, the staff questioned closely, and still there’s no trace of her at all. Before he can sink his teeth into the mystery at hand, though, Teddy begins to perceive — by way of a John Cage-based score that creates paranoiac mood the way dynamite catches fish — various sinister undercurrents. This is one of those movies where Nothing Is As It Seems.
The first hour or so, when the film functions as a more-than-adequate psychological thriller, is Shutter Island’s best. The more Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis reveal about Teddy, the less we think we really understand him. The same is true of the hospital itself, which may or may not be affiliated with government experiments, the Cold War, the Nazis Teddy fought in Germany during WWII, and any number of other unspeakable things. The dread builds promisingly, and as a visual and narrative experience, Shutter Island comes close, during its first half, to earning the comparisons some critics have made to the best of Hitchcock. The style (including Thelma Shoonmaker’s cutting, the gliding camera, the attention to evocative details) is pure Scorsese, which is to say compulsively watchable and deeply satisfying. The cast (including Max Von Sydow as the hospital chief of staff, Mark Ruffalo as Teddy’s partner, and Michelle Williams as the Teddy’s dead wife, haunting his dreams, both waking and sleeping) is, overall, superb.
And yet as twist begets twist and ever more bogeymen and shadows, Shutter Island begins to resemble an overwrought, under-thought twist movie, a genre unto itself in recent years. These films are built entirely around one clever idea, one key detail or shift in perspective that will stand everything we’ve seen on its head. Everything besides the twist — character, plot, music — are merely distractions from the big reveal. Think of James Mangold’s infuriating Identity, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, or pretty much anything by M. Night Shyamalan. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of good twist movies, where the twist has an emotional logic, or dovetails with the story’s themes and ideas — Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game come to mind — but too often the twist is meant to be its own reward.
Shutter Island tries hard to reach that level, but its twist is — to skip any nuanced analysis — just so stupid that whatever sense of emotional grounding the film may have created is instantly obliterated, and the movie as a whole cheapened beyond redemption. The scene in which the twist is revealed and explained is so awkward and hamfisted that it includes an actual whiteboard, on which a character has written out an explanation of the mystery. Surely Scorsese went home after shooting that day and held his Oscar closely for reassurance.
The fact that such a rickety contraption as this film’s plot can be as convincing and compelling as it is, for as long as it is, proves a credit to Scorsese and his cast and crew. One of the benefits of being Martin Scorsese, it seems, is the ability to gather a group of collaborators who will sometimes make more of the story than there is on the page. Studios, actors and producers all clamor for the opportunity to be affiliated with America’s Greatest Living Director. DiCaprio, explaining his involvement in Shutter Island, recently said that you just don’t pass on the chance to work with someone like Martin Scorsese. He had less to say about the quality of the project itself. Such fawning is surely nice for Martin, but it may not be the best thing for his art.