Coming on the heels of his multiple-Oscar-winning “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is bound to feel like a letdown, especially since the “Departed” recognition had such a strong whiff of “lifetime achievement” about it. Scorsese’s curse is that he’s his own toughest act to follow.
To his credit, he seems positively unconcerned about such things. “Shutter Island” just happens to be the next movie he made after “The Departed,” and if it’s not as weighty or memorable as his best work — well, what is? Scorsese’s technical proficiency and overall mastery of the cinematic language are virtually unrivaled, even when, as here, the project is “only” a goose-bumpy B-movie.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone”), “Shutter Island” is set in 1954 at a high-security hospital for the criminally insane, conveniently located in Boston Harbor on the desolate title island. A federal marshal named Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), have come here by ferry to investigate a rather peculiar situation: one of the inmates has disappeared from her locked room, leaving no evidence of how she escaped (or “excaped,” as DiCaprio pronounces it). The woman, named Rachel Solando, was incarcerated for murdering her three children, so she’s not the type you want roaming free (assuming she could get off the island anyway) (which she couldn’t).
Teddy confides in Chuck that it’s no accident he was assigned to this case. Teddy’s been keeping an eye on Shutter Island for several years, ever since the man responsible for his wife’s death was imprisoned here, only to later be set free. Teddy is suspicious of the hospital’s practices, and perhaps with good reason. The cell block reserved for the most dangerous offenders is strictly off-limits to visitors, and an old lighthouse that is supposedly only used now as a waste-treatment facility has barbed wire around it. Mmhmm.
The facility’s administrators don’t do much to put Teddy’s mind at ease (Chuck is less skeptical). The top psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), insists on calling them “patients” rather than “inmates” and emphasizes his humane treatment of them — perhaps over-emphasizes, Teddy thinks. And leading the board of trustees is the Freud-resembling Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who is German, the same nationality as the Nazis Chuck fought in World War II. He still has flashbacks and nightmares about the experience, and about his wife’s death (she’s played by Michelle Williams in these sequences). Teddy comes to believe there is something truly sinister going on here, and we’re apt to agree.
Scorsese sinks his teeth into the spookiness of it all, clearly relishing the chance to do genre work: other than “Cape Fear,” this is the closest he’s come to making a “horror film.” The forbidding island, the dark and stormy nights, the hurricane that shuts off the power, the creepy inmates, the mysterious vanishing woman, the presence of Ted Levine (the killer in “Silence of the Lambs”) as a warden and Jackie Earle Haley (the child molester in “Little Children”) as a prisoner — these are toys for Scorsese to play with in his inimitable virtuosic way. Our first glimpse of the island, after Teddy and Chuck have been discussing how notorious it is, is accompanied by a blast of ominous, “Jaws”-ish cello music. It’s played so loudly and prominently that you can picture Scorsese smiling at the operatic over-the-topness of it.
He’s assisted by two longtime collaborators, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who between them have won five Oscars, four of them for Scorsese films. (Richardson is currently nominated for “Inglourious Basterds,” too.) They bring Scorsese’s lush, Gothic vision to life with terrific confidence. I have to think even someone with only a passing interest in film could watch “Shutter Island” and, say, one of the “Saw” movies and easily see how one is more competently, professionally, skillfully made than the other, regardless of what you think of their entertainment value.
“Shutter Island’s” only significant problem is that its last 20 minutes are completely insane, story-wise. I gather the screenplay adaptation, by Laeta Kalogridis (“Alexander,” “Night Watch”), is faithful to Lehane’s book, so maybe there’s not much that could have been done — but wow, does it ever get goofy. Yet at the same time, there’s the sense that Scorsese enjoys and embraces the outrageousness of it. After all, without the glossy Scorsesean adornments, this would be a throwaway mystery-thriller, with barely a hint of depth. Don’t think of it as Scorsese making something that’s not as good as he’s capable of. Think of it as Scorsese taking a story that should have been no better than average and making it worth watching.
B (2 hrs., 18 min.; )