The Wall Street Journal - February 19, 2010



Scorsese Rules This 'Island'

Beneath pulpy plot, profundity

By John Anderson


In "Shutter Island," Mr. Scorsese's 21st narrative feature and his most enigmatic, the director has made multiple movies from Dennis Lehane's best-selling novel of the same title: The one you see the first time, and the one(s) you see the second. Such claims can be made about other films, of course—Hitchcock's "Vertigo," for instance, which the Mr. Scorsese refers to here more than once. But for all the immediacy and seemingly disposable pulp in its fiction, "Shutter Island" requires multiple viewings to be fully realized as a work of art. Its process is more important than its story, its structure more important than the almost perfunctory plot twists it perpetrates. It's a thriller, a crime story and a tortured psychological parable about collective guilt. But in the end, "Shutter Island" is the cinematic equivalent of a Joseph Cornell box, a world of appropriated ingredients given new meaning through their combination and juxtaposition. It won't be a beloved movie. It will inspire doctoral dissertations. And while this news may not bring unbridled joy to the folks at Paramount Pictures, let them be consoled by the thought that it possesses a kind of obsessive perfection.

Which is not to say that there aren't satisfactions to be had on a single trip to "Shutter Island," which boasts a spectacular cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and that goddess Patricia Clarkson. From the slap-hammer opening credits, this is a movie in a mood. Imagine walking into the middle of someone else's family fight. You're not quite sure why the atmosphere is so fraught with hysteria, but you sense that it's safer not to ask. The year is 1954, the day is gray, the heaving water on Boston Harbor looks as welcoming as a grave. U.S. marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (the eminently watchable Mark Ruffalo) are aboard a patrol boat heading to Ashecliffe Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane, where a patient named Rachel Soldano has apparently executed a Houdini-like escape from her windowless cell. Having murdered her three small children, the cops are told, she has never accepted the deaths, or the fact that she's imprisoned in the ghastly Ashecliffe. She thinks she's living in the Berkshires. Perhaps she's just gone for a hike. And taken reality with her. Teddy is officially on Shutter Island to find Rachel, but he's arrived with another agenda: Human experimentation has taken place there, and he intends to crack the case wide open. But who is and isn't cracked becomes harder and harder to determine, as Shutter Island wraps itself around him.

The plot's dry bones, which in his novel Mr. Lehane seems to have exhumed from the more hardboiled and allegorical B-movies of the '40s and '50s, are just that, a skeletal frame over which Scorsese can drape a garment woven from the accumulated knowledge of his lifetime as a movie watcher. You can see why he wanted to make this film: It's a story begging for visual layers. From the Hitchcockian back projections against which Teddy and Chuck are framed, to the kind of shadowy elegance found in the work of '40s producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur ("Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie"), Mr. Scorsese is accessing all the macabre thrillers he has in his head. To catalogue them here wouldn't just be pretentious, it would be impossible.

The director is working, as he has three times previously (in "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and his Oscar-winner, "The Departed"), with Leonardo DiCaprio, who has never seemed so substantial. He's thickened, a least for this role, which calls for him to be both hardened and tenderized, like a cheap steak under the meat mallet. Life has been a nightmare for Teddy, and a recurring one. Almost immediately after his arrival on Shutter flashbacks begin, both of his dead wife (a terrific Michelle Williams) and of the liberation of Dachau, where he remembers slaughtering Nazis.

The question most people will want answered is, does it work as a thriller? And the answer is: sort of. Everything is overwrought, notably the engorged dialogue by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, crafted out of Mr. Lehane's film-noirish patois, and the music, which may lack the specific gravity of a Bernard Herrmann score (like the one he did for "Vertigo"), lingers in the mind, like the film's ever-present cigarette smoke and mood of anxiety.

Take the use of Mahler's Quartet for Strings and Piano in A minor. It functions here on two levels. Only the first movement has survived, so the presence of a fragmentary work by an Austrian Jew is an oblique comment on the story's fractured characters. In addition, it embellishes Mr. Scorsese's vision of Dachau—here filtered through Teddy's tortured viewpoint—in which winter has turned a death camp into a frozen tableaux of permanently lovely children and the dead flow from freight cars as if from a fountain. Not since "Raging Bull" has Mr. Scorsese so brazenly married brutality to beauty. Not since "Kundun" has one of his films felt so aspirational.