Friday, February 19, 2010
Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (opening February 19 throughout San Diego) has had some delays but finally arrives in theaters. The question is, was it worth the wait?
Martin Scorsese is a director whose work inspired me to want to make films. I remember seeing “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” while still a teenager and being riveted by what I saw on the screen and vividly aware of a director’s vision at work. I followed his career closely and was always impressed by the passion he brought to any project. I was also angered by the fact that Hollywood and the Academy refused to acknowledge his genius by giving him an Oscar for one of his great films like “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas.” I blame the Academy for the fact that Scorsese started to make films designed more to please the Hollywood than himself. I think that’s why he started using A-list actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.
In the 70s and 80s I could eagerly look forward to every Scorsese film but as time went on and especially once we hit the new millennium, I started to look to a new Scorsese film with more trepidation than eager anticipation. I was worried about how I might be disappointed rather than by how he might dazzle me. The disappointment was not so much about how good or bad the films were but rather in the ways they were flawed. I am less disappointed by a film that strives for something innovative and falls short (“After Hours,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”) than by a film that fails to push boundaries (“The Aviator,” “The Departed”).
So that being said, I went into “Shutter Island” hoping for the best but fearing that Scorsese still hadn’t shook his desire to please Hollywood. Based on the trailers, “Shutter Island” didn’t look like the kind of personal project that Scorsese used to excel at. Now that Scorsese has won an Oscar (for “The Departed,” which is by no means his best work) I keep hoping he will return to smaller budget films with actors rather than stars and celebrities, and deliver the kind of films that used to make me swoon.
“Shutter Island” reminds me in some ways of Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.” They both feel like Hollywood genre films, the kind he might have watched and enjoyed before he became a director. That made me hopeful about the film. “Shutter Island” harkens back to films like “The Snake Pit,” “Shock Corridor,” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte;” films that either dealt with the horrors of mental institutions or with protagonists whose sanity comes into question.
Set in 1954, “Shutter Island” gives us Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall investigating the disappearance of a mental patient who seems to have escaped from a high security asylum for the criminally insane. The tone is ominous from the start as the hospital staff can’t explain how the woman could have possibly escaped the rugged island facility. But Teddy suspects there’s more going on than just the search for a missing patient. He suspects that there’s a cover up regarding experiments being done on patients, and that if he uncovers too much, he will not be allowed to leave.
In on respect, “Shutter Island” is like the French slasher film “High Tension.” Both films are puzzle boxes that strain credibility and then throw out a big twist that explains one set of implausibilities only to replace them with a whole new set. Scorsese does well creating the ominous, oppressive setting and then surprises us with some sumptuously shot surreal sequences that might be Teddy’s memories, dreams, nightmares, or hallucinations. The contrast between the musty, gray hospital and the vivid images fermenting in Teddy’s brain is striking. But it also clues us in early on to what the twist will be.
The film tries to engage us with two parallel stories that ultimately intersect. In the one, Teddy is trying to uncover the dark secrets of the asylum, and in the other, Teddy is trying to cope with a personal tragedy that threatens to consume him. But because of the structure of the film, we end up spending too much time with the part of the story that proves to be a sham and not enough with the one that’s more substantial.
Scorsese delivers a film that looks good and feels well crafted. Yet it lacks the passion that made Scorsese’s early works so visceral and dynamic. This feels like an homage to films like Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” There’s a slow, methodical pacing that builds a sense of dread and paranoia. But Scorsese hasn’t managed to make it his own, to put his own unique stamp on it. It’s competent filmmaking but nothing to get excited about.
DiCaprio begins well but as the film demands more of him and Teddy’s character develops additional layers, the actor comes up short. Patricia Clarkson and Mark Ruffalo do well in supporting roles. But it’s Ted Levine, as one of the security guards at the hospital, that has the film’s best scene and reminds me of Scorsese’s films at their best.
“Shutter Island” (rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity) is a competent film from a director capable of so much more.
Companion viewing: “Cape Fear,” “The Snake Pit,” “High Tension,” “Rebecca”