Montreal Film Journal


I love Martin Scorsese as much as the next guy, all right? "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" are full-on masterpieces, and the man has directed a bunch of other great films over the years, the Oscar-winning "The Departed" being the most recent example. Which is a roundabout way of saying that while I enjoyed "Shutter Island" as an exercise in style, it doesn't seem worthy of being included amongst Scorsese's best to me.

All the same, I've been reading and hearing lots of critics praising it to high heavens... Frankly, I don't get it. Oh, like I said, it's an enjoyable enough flick, and Scorsese has certainly directed the hell of it. But this Dennis Lehane adaptation felt rather inconsequential to me, with U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) running around like "a fucking rat in a maze", haunted by World War II flashbacks, dreams of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and increasingly frequent hallucinations involving, notably, a mother (Emily Mortimer) who drowned her three kids, totally snapped out of reality and was locked up in Dr. Cawley's institution - from which she mysteriously escaped the previous night.

That escape is the reason why, on a fateful 1954 day, Teddy and his newly appointed partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) find themselves on the titular location, which is probably the best thing about the movie. As designed by art director Dante Ferretti, the institution for the criminally insane that's been built into an old Civil War fort on Shutter Island comes off like a cross between Alcatraz and Arkham Asylum, filled with creepy individuals, and I'm not just talking about the prisoners/patients! The staff of nurses and guards led by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) and Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) all seem odd and threatening to various degrees and, without spoiling anything, it appears that they might be involved in anything from Nazi psychiatric experiments to Cold War secret-ops and various other conspiracies.

On top of investigating the woman's disappearance and trying to discover what the hell is actually going on in this crazy place, our heroes in hats and trench coats have to deal with a hurricane coming dangerously close to Shutter Island. And as mentioned, DiCaprio's character has a lot of psychological baggage of his own to deal with... I suppose this should all be mentally disturbing, emotionally challenging and physically draining, but for some reason, it didn't do any of that for me. Loved the art direction, the cinematography, the use of modern classical music, the editing, the sound mix and the performances from DiCaprio and the rest of the cast (which also features Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson)...

But to go back to my original point, it ultimately felt like an inconsequential exercise in style to me. And even on that level, Scorsese doesn't outdo himself. "Cape Fear" was a much more intense and over the top thriller, "Bringing Out the Dead" was a much more wrenching depiction of a man struggling to hold onto his sanity, and that's just using two semi-recent examples from Marty's filmography. I also got a strong Christopher Nolan vibe from "Shutter Island" (a little bit of "Memento", a little bit of "Insomnia", a little bit of the third act of "Batman Begins"...), but to be honest, I prefer Nolan's films to Scorsese's latest.