Martin Scorsese, wanting to be Stanley Kubrick, has failed big time. I know The Shining, and Shutter Island is no The Shining.
Elephantine in every aspect, this attempt at a psychological horror thriller exploits the Holocaust, the plight of those incarcerated for insanity in the '50s, and the victims of anti-Communist purges by splicing together moments of those inhumane historical atrocities into an empty-headed, grotesquely dissatisfying cinematic journey.
The problem here is that Scorsese no longer knows how to work small. Nowadays, every shot is overwhelmingly beautiful. Every possible angle is explored. The editing can be applauded. The production design is flawless. The cast gives its all, but the only soul is supplied by the music (supervised by Robbie Robertson, with works by John Cage, Max Richter, Brian Eno, and John Adams).
Based on a bestselling novel by Dennis Lehane, the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, who previously penned the TV pilot for The Bionic Woman, starts out in 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new sidekick Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sailing towards the Ashecliffe Hospital, a rather forbidding home for the criminally insane, erected on an inescapable island, of course.
The boys' task at hand: explore the disappearance of an inmate, a young woman who supposedly drowned her three children in a lake beside her home after her husband was killed in the war.
The unsympathetic Tedd--he doesn't like murderers--senses there's a cover-up going on, plus some other ill-advised activities.
One of the inmates he interviews even scribbles on his pad a warning: "RUN." And then it's the warden, I believe, who asks Teddy, while driving him about, "If I sink my teeth into your eye right now, could you stop me before I blinded you?" And that's nothing when you hear about the hospital's specialty: trans-orbital lobotomies.
What's going on here? Well, "God loves violence. That's why there's so much of it" is apparently the film's motto, and poor Teddy not only has to deal with the crazies surrounding him, he has his own dreams of his dead wife (a bland Michele Williams) who died in a fire. Other times Teddy's hallucinating about the frozen bodies of the concentration camp victims he came across while serving in the armed forces at the end of World War II.
Oh, no! Can a man who is this apparently disturbed solve a crime in a locale bustling with the certifiably disturbed who are kept in check by a system that de Sade would have appreciated?
My lips are sealed, but I will reveal to those of you who are unwavering DiCaprio fans that the star gives a fine performance as a man with a constant migraine headache. His ability to keep a pained look on his face for an enormous amount of screen time is indeed applause-worthy. And his Bostonian accent, when remembered, is inarguably convincing.
As for Scorsese, if you want to experience this director when he was emotionally connected to his work, get hold of his superb 1967 feature debut, Who's that Knocking at My Door. Maybe Scorsese should re-watch it himself. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is featured in Rosa von Praunheim's forthcoming documentary New York Memories. In the spring, he'll be teaching "The Image of the Jew in Post-World War II European Cinema" and "Gay and Lesbian Literature" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).