The first trailer for Shutter Island was something of a head-turner: “Wait a second … that looks an awful lot like Martin Scorsese has made a horror film.” And indeed he has: For the first two hours or so, Scorsese puts us through the horror paces, slowly ratcheting up tension to nearly unbearable levels, rarely engaging in jump scares or other generic tropes but preying on the audience’s expectations of the same to heighten the moody atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Shutter Island builds to an utterly unsatisfying conclusion, one that probably could have been avoided for reasons I’ll go into more deeply a little later. Briefly, though, the mousetrap that Scorsese has so carefully constructed demands a properly tight spring that will snap shut with such force that anything caught in its maw will be shattered when the latch is tripped. Instead of that spring, however, we’re treated to a soggy noodle that might make sense intellectually but feels cold and limp.
It’s a shame, because Scorsese has created a piece of masterfully manipulative horror designed to keep the audience guessing from the moment Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) emerge out of the fog-shrouded Boston Harbor to Teddy’s final, fateful journey to the mysterious lighthouse that holds Shutter Island’s many mysteries. Teddy’s a marshal from the mainland looking for a patient/prisoner who has escaped from the hospital for the criminally insane housed on the island; she has disappeared without a trace, like morning dew when it comes face to face with the hot desert sun.
But Teddy’s looking for a deeper conspiracy at work. Rumor has it that the government is conducting psychological experiments on the prisoners being held at the hospital, horrible experiments designed to create Manchurian candidates for the United States to use against its enemies. Plus, the hospital houses the man who Teddy blames for his wife’s death, a firebug named Laedis who no one at the hospital seems to have heard of — or no one will admit to having heard of.
Needless to say, nothing is quite as it seems and no one’s word should be taken for granted. As the conspiracy deepens it becomes obvious that something is amiss. But what? Who is playing who?
The cast is impressive: in addition to Messrs DiCaprio and Ruffalo, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley and Oscar nominee Max Von Sydow join the game as the psychiatrists in charge of Shutter Island, and the resurgent Jackie Earl Haley turns in another inspired performance as one of their many mentally disturbed patients. Between this film and Watchmen, Haley’s carving out quite a space in the psychopathic portion of the acting world.
Where Shutter Island falters isn’t with the actors but with Mr. Scorsese’s insistence to wrap everything up with a neat little bow at the end of the picture: The conclusion is a sodden clump of exposition that stretches on for almost 20 minutes, taking the audience by the hand and leading them through the land of Teddy’s mental state. Instead of leaving a measure of ambiguity as to the true nature of the mysteries at hand — as that other great director, Stanley Kubrick, did in his only entry in the genre, The Shining — Scorsese decides to hammer home every plot point and reveal just what was going on at each and every moment. Instead of trusting the audience to work things out for themselves — or, even better, giving them too little information to truly work everything out — we’re spoonfed the conclusions.
It’s a dismaying decision from the one of the finest directors this great nation has ever birthed. This isn’t to say that Shutter Island is a total waste of time; even lesser Scorsese is better than 85% of what you’ll find at the multiplex on any given weekend. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed that such promise went unfulfilled.
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