A non-writing director who understands the importance of a good script, Martin Scorsese forged tight partnerships early in his career with some of the best screenwriters of his generation. His partnerships with Mardik Martin (Mean Streets, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing out the Dead) lasted about as long as his collaboration with Robert De Niro and were at least as crucial a component of those movies’ fevered intensity, of why they all—or nearly all—matter as much as they do. He doesn’t seem to have any relationships like that these days: Every feature he’s made since 2000 was scripted by someone new, including the dreadful Gangs of New York, which seems to have been written by committee. Maybe that’s why his only movie from the last decade with the brilliance and fire of the best of his work is No Direction Home, the Dylan documentary Scorsese apparently made without a script.
His latest, which I caught on Movies on Demand last night, is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also cowrote the screenplay, and it’s as sensationalistic and gimmicky as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Lehane’s two other recent movie adaptations. Though it’s not quite as standard a trapped-in-the-nuthouse psychological thriller as its head-fake of a trailer makes it out to be, Shutter Island has none of the emotional resonance of Scorsese’s best stuff. What’s more, it relies on too many hackneyed cliches (anagrams? really?), and I more or less figured out the climactic plot twist just a few minutes in even though I’m not usually good at guessing those things.
I’m sounding more negative than I feel: Shutter Island made for a perfectly pleasant evening in front of the tube for my husband and me. It’s gorgeous to look at, the hurricane that’s either on the horizon or raging through most of the film turning the sky glowing slate blue, the choppy sea silver, and giving the grounds of the asylum—actually a prison for the criminally insane—a shadowless, color-saturated look that adds to the sense of heightened reality. Leonardo DiCaprio’s feverish performance as Teddy Daniels, the marshal investigating the disappearance of a patient/prisoner, is well matched by Mark Ruffalo’s quiet watchfulness as his assistant, and Ben Kingsley’s patrician accent and coiled-cobra affect work nicely in the role of the head physician who’s either a great humanitarian or an evil genius. Michelle Williams is good too, as touching as always yet creepily off, in some hard to define way, as Teddy’s dead wife. The story’s surrealism—until that twist ending, you never quite know what’s happening or why—seems to give Scorsese permission to crank it up to full volume, playing with interrogation-style lighting inside the high-security part of the prison, with minimalistic/portentous Jaws-style music throughout, and lingering (maybe a bit too much) on eerie-looking inmates as they grimace or leer. There are some nice set pieces, like Teddy clutching his wife as she turns to ash and disintegrates, and the way things just keep getting worse as Teddy tries to investigate, ping-ponging from one cul-de-sac to the next, feels convincingly hallucinogenic.
It’s a pretty good B movie, but it would have been a better one if it hadn’t tried to be more. When Teddy’s flashbacks to liberating Dachau and his suspicion that there is Nazi-style experimentation going on at the prison turns out to be just another dead end, not even Scorsese’s thunder and lightning can disguise the fact that this is a pretty thin story.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.