February 25, 2010


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Shutter Island (R)
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls out the Boston accent again, this time as a lawman fighting crime on an island housing a gothic-castle-like hospital for the criminally insane in Shutter Island, a dull-thud of a movie from Martin Scorsese.

I’m going to warn you now that to talk about this movie is to spoil it. If you want to go in knowing nothing, take my “meh” rating and get thyself to a theater with minimal Internet reading. Because…

There is a twist and the twist telegraphs itself almost as soon as the movie starts. “Oh,” I thought, “so that’s what’s going on. I wonder how long it’s going to take before the movie comes out with it.” As it turns out, “way too long” is the answer.

We first see Leonard DiCaprio, playing U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, horking it up in a ferry bathroom, thoroughly seasickened by his boat ride. Along with new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), he’s headed out to Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, responding to a report that a patient has escaped.

As if a mental hospital housing criminal prisoners in 1950s Boston isn’t creepy enough, Shutter Island becomes notably creepier once Daniels hits land. The Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch) takes his gun. Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) seems genuinely concerned about the well-being of the missing woman but also strangely obstructive of Daniels’ investigation. The Grim Reaper-ish Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) reminds Daniels a little too much of the Nazis (and their crimes) he saw as a soldier when he liberated Dachau. And the patients all seem jumpy — telling him to run or indicating with their too-quick denials that there might be another patient, one not on the books, lurking somewhere on the island. And in these early days when a lobotomy still sounded like a reasonable go-to medical treatment, is it so far fetched to believe that the real crime is not a missing prisoner but horrifying experiments performed on these incapacitated witnesses?

You have to make a decision early in Shutter Island — is the cast uniformly off their game here or are their performances stilted because they’re all holding neon signs pointing to a plot point? And while DiCaprio does spend much of the movie looking like a toddler about to throw a tantrum and while Ruffalo does seem a bit like a pod person, it’s still very hard — impossible, I’d argue — to come to the conclusion that what you’re seeing is just lousy acting. It’s at least lousy acting weighed down by two hours of foreshadowing.

Though, I’d also argue that the acting isn’t lousy so much as it is what you’d see in a mental-hospital-for-the-criminally-insane thriller circa 1950something. It’s minor-key hysticia-filled music and gray-on-gray tones and dramatic darkness inside the minds of its lead character and outside where a hurricane rages. Scorsese recreates this feel very well, to the point where I even found myself thinking “hey, there’s the classic moment of misdirection” and “hey, there’s the influence of the Cold War.” It’s like looking at the wardrobe pieces from Mad Men — elegantly crafted, perfectly representative of their time period but empty and lifeless if they aren’t filled with a well-developed character.

Perhaps with its leftover Boston accents and its grim-faced DiCaprio, Shutter Island is supposed to make us think of The Departed — it is similarly stylistic and could be similarly fun. But my thoughts turned instead to the recent The Wolfman, another airless re-creation of an earlier style of filmmaking. Put The Wolfman and Shutter Island together and you have a matinee double feature tailor made for Mystery Science 3000-style enjoyment. Or at least it would be, if the makers of these movies hadn’t so studiously avoided any sense of camp or anything that would make people suspect that these movies aren’t 100 percent Grade A Serious Movie caliber. Except they aren’t. They are both sterile, vacuum-sealed copies of an old-fashioned style that was only exciting and entertaining originally because those movies had either a B-movie desire to be all they could be, melodrama-wise, or because they evoked a spooky period vibe. Shutter Island does neither of those things. It is a pretty reproduction that is initially pretty to look at but ultimately not attention-holding.

And, just maybe, Mr. Scorsese, is it time to find another muse and let DiCaprio take a movie off? C

Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Laeta Kalogridis (from the novel by Dennis Lehane), Shutter Island is two hours and 18 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures.