by Richard von Busack
LOWING foghorns and a ferryboat plowing through misty waters: we’re in Boston harbor in 1954, and then what materializes ahead is apparently Skull Island. Kong, however, is not at home; this Alcatraz for the criminally insane is actually called Shutter, to sound like “shudder.”
Two U.S. Marshals float in. One, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is still in Berlin, just as ’70s cops were still in Saigon. His partner: the easygoing, none-too-bright Chuck (Mark Ruffalo). They call on the grandly mannered lord of the place: Dr. Cawley, the head psychiatrist. Bald and Vandyked (Ben Kingsley), he is surrounded with dark velvet curtains and life-size statues of Pan. Cawley and his assistant, a sinister, Mahler-loving mitteleuropean (Max von Sydow), supervise a weird staff; we can’t tell them from the inmates without their uniforms. Bad storm, check; power outage, check; escaped lunatic, check.
Why wouldn’t a director as ambitious and shocking as Martin Scorsese want to connect with the youth audience, by making a dungeon movie? Teacher that he is, Scorsese tries to lead these gorehounds back to Roger Corman and then further to Val Lewton. The traditions are honored: nightmare sequences, statues flickering in lightning and visits to Teddy by the ever-more persistent ghost of his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). Giving the best performance here, Williams is as creamy-skinned and as alluring as the specter in Ugetsu, although she is subject to unpleasant transformations.
As per Otto Preminger’s thrillers, Scorsese deploys a large cast of celebrity inmates. The roster includes a hideously disfigured Elias Koteas, shaped like and imitating a young De Niro. Patricia Clarkson plays a tragic cavewoman, telling her story of torment over an open fire. Emily Mortimer shows up as a suburban Medea. Jackie Earle Haley is, no surprise, nuts again. As the warden, Ted Levine (good old Buffalo Bill himself from The Silence of the Lambs) chats about God’s propensity for violence.
The buffet may not be as fresh as it could be, but it is laid out with panache, so I’m unsure why I have more mixed emotions about this than I have about The Wolfman, which is also elegantly retro. Shutter Island is not so clear on what its motives are, and as in The Wolfman, the recutting is as obvious as inexpensive plastic surgery. The script, credited to Laeta Kalogridis, serves up backstory in playlike chunks, especially some revelations about MK-Ultra-style skullduggery.
One gets shaken out of the mood by shaky vernacular: a weapon in the crawly Dr. Cawley’s arsenal is “radical, cutting-edge role play.” In flashbacks as a young man in the army, DiCaprio looks right, pin-pricked-eyed with stress and shock from liberating Dachau—everywhere, there are frozen bodies stuck in ice sculpture; and we see the machine-gunning by the guards in a 20 mph shot. But Teddy should have looked more like the brute everyone keeps describing: a dummied-up bruiser. He’s a Joseph Cotten type in a role that could have used a Richard Widmark (or best of all, a Ralph Meeker).
The Raging Bulls are in their purple years, going for baroque. Shutter Island can be linked with Coppola’s Balkan/Argentine homebrewed films and De Palma’s crazed but technically brilliant Black Dahlia. Here is another movie-drenched, entertaining throwback, not a step forward—a stumbling block for a baffled audience trained to believe “it must be important, because it’s Scorsese.” In this mad movie, with its cascades of rats and brick labyrinths, one feels the director’s sympathy for the delusional. He’s a cineasté cramming in a triple bill of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Spellbound and Suddenly, Last Summer: Scorsese, prisoner, half-sane, in that chamber of hallucinations known as a movie theater.