There is a lovely advert floating around on the Internet featuring Martin Scorsese, in his capacity not just as acclaimed director, but also dedicated film preservationist. He claims to have unearthed three pages of never before seen Hitchcock material, which he will endeavour to commit to film exactly as the master of suspense would have done himself, and the result is a very clever, lovingly crafted pastiche. I shan’t spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, it isn’t just a promotion for the World Cinema Foundation.
Shutter Island, Scorsese’s first feature film since 2006’s The Departed, is just as ridden with Hitchcock-ian tropes and horror cliché, but to far less endearing effect: it was only when the credits started rolling at the end that I realised that this time the director is being serious. Shutter Island isn’t a parody, or a viral marketing campaign; it’s just very disappointing.
The year is 1954, and Leonardo DiCaprio — who, it has been widely noted, was clearly so taken by the South Boston accent he cultivated for his last outing with Scorsese that he has simply refused to relinquish it here — plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal who arrives by boat to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane (what else?) located on the eponymous island.
Evidently, the four-year break from filmmaking has not been good for Scorsese. He is like an addict, and his drugs are movies — I mean that in a good way — but this is one big overdose, taken (or made; I’m not really sure how this analogy is working) to combat the withdrawal symptoms. Everything about Shutter Island is produced on a grandly cinematic scale, except for the story, which, beyond its ability to treat the camera to yet another money-shot of precipitous cliff faces, is handled with faint indifference.
And this is a real shame, because deep down, there actually is quite a good tale to tell — indeed, one that has already been told, in the novel by Dennis Lehane which is the film’s source material. The story is rather odd and a little convoluted sometimes, but, if Scorsese hadn’t allowed himself to get so bogged down in obeisance to directors of yore, one that could have been told engagingly and with real panache.
Instead, what we have in Shutter Island is a piece of work which is practically forensic in its homage to the thriller genre, but almost completely devoid of passion. The twists upon which so much of the plot hinges (and again, I shan’t ruin them here, but I’d say that it’s pretty damning that I have fewer qualms with doing so for a film than a commercial), however intellectually challenging — which is still only a little bit — are uninteresting, and when the big reveal comes, even it feels like one which has been used a few too many times before. There are, it’s also worth mentioning, far too many puzzles being wound and unravelled at once, and if it feels like I haven’t given any real information as to the actual story, it’s only because with the slightest nudge the whole sandcastle of mystery would collapse at my feet.
Perhaps Scorsese realised all this, and compensated accordingly with a cast list that gives new meaning to the aphorism embarrassment of riches (it really is rich, and they should all be embarrassed to be included in it). The credits read like a who’s who of gothic character actors: Ted Levine (otherwise known as Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs), John Carroll Lynch (or, The Guy Who Probably Dunnit in Zodiac), Jackie Earle Haley (soon to play Freddy Krueger in a Nightmare Before Elm Street remake) and, best of all, Max von Sydow.
I did my very best to care about a film with so many excellent faces attached to it — honest, I did. But Shutter Island is the filmic equivalent of a super-group, and so perhaps it makes sense that it’s nowhere near as good as any of its influences — after all, who’s ever liked Velvet Revolver more than Guns ‘n’ Roses?