By David Germain
Martin Scorsese clearly had a ball making “Shutter Island,” which seemingly hurls everything the director knows about filmmaking up on screen in a blazing, masterful technical triumph.
The joy of a boy playing with the world’s greatest electric train set, as Orson Welles memorably described moviemaking, does not necessarily mean a good time for movie-goers, even with Scorsese’s regular screen idol, Leonardo DiCaprio, leading the superb cast.
“Shutter Island” is long and wearying — brilliantly constructed, obsessively detailed, yet dramatically a piece of pulp schlock that’s been overdressed and overstuffed to disguise a ponderous and absurd story.
In that regard, “Shutter Island” is right in line with Dennis Lehane’s novel, a 1950s tale of paranoia, delusion, grief and denial set at a New England asylum for the criminally insane, where two federal cops are searching for an escaped murderess.
Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis stick closely, almost literally, to Lehane’s story, whose jolts and surprises are clever but rather cheap and far-fetched.
It holds together well enough on the page as Lehane unfurls the rich inner tumult of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a man agonized by the death of his wife and his World War II service among the Allied troops that liberated the Dachau death camp. You’re invested in this guy, so that when Lehane springs his grand twist, you may not buy it, but you at least can roll with it.
As gorgeously as Scorsese captures Teddy’s nightmare world, the director lets the man’s inherent gloom weigh so heavily that it overwhelms the story, making Lehane’s big reveal seem all the more shabby and unsatisfying.
For his first film since 2006 Academy Awards champ “The Departed,” Scorsese works a fourth time with DiCaprio, whose supreme gift for brooding makes him an obvious choice to play Teddy.
Paired with new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is dispatched to Ashecliffe Hospital on bleak Shutter Island, where suspicion and ill weather seem the two sustaining elements.
Teddy and Chuck are trying to solve the vanishing-act escape of Rachel Solando, a delusional patient who drowned her three children. Rachel disappeared from her locked cell, and the hospital staff and guards have been unable to turn up any trace of her on the barren island.
The marshals are greeted with reserve bordering on hostility from the hospital staff, including the head shrinks (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow).
As a hurricane sweeps over the island, Teddy and Chuck tumble into a chasm of conspiracy theories about brainwashing, radical surgery, clandestine wards and secret patients.
Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson play two embodiments of the missing Rachel, whose true identity is at the heart of the story’s climactic surprise.
As Teddy’s dead wife in flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations, Michelle Williams delivers the film’s most moving moments. Those scenes also are Scorsese at his finest, radiant flashes of tragic grandeur in a film that otherwise is mostly a study in ghoulishness.
In imagery and design, it’s certainly a beautiful, even dazzling study as Scorsese conducts first-rate work from a team of past collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferreri, costume designer Sandy Powell and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Robbie Robertson, whose group The Band was the subject of Scorsese’s concert film “The Last Waltz,” serves as music supervisor, creating a score that’s a suitably jarring pastiche based on tunes from a variety of 20th-century composers.
From the Gothic feel of early German cinema to the more stark and realistic terrors of modern horror, Scorsese gloriously shows off the influences he’s been absorbing and devouring for well over half a century.
Scorsese has succeeded with grand pulp before with “Cape Fear” and “The Departed.” With “Shutter Island,” his reach is operatic, but the result is like an overblown episode of “The X-Files” or “The Twilight Zone.”
With so many talented people performing at the top of their game, “Shutter Island” should be more than this. If Scorsese and company cannot make it work as a movie, maybe it all comes back to the big stretch Lehane’s story expects viewers to accept.
If a film is going to pile on the doom and foreboding this thickly, the payoff better be worth the hard road viewers have to slog.
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