For his first live-action outing since winning his long-overdue Oscar for "The Departed," director Martin Scorsese taps his encyclopedic knowledge of movie history and crafts a mishmash genre flick that practically defies categorization.
Like a child left alone in a candy store, Scorsese treats himself to hearty samples from every over-stuffed jar but stops just short of greedy gluttony. He pushes the technical aspects of the movie to their respective breaking points without doing any permanent damage. It's clear Scorsese had a ball making this movie.
From an audio/visual perspective "Shutter Island" is a masterpiece. Scorsese surrounds himself with the finest professionals in their chosen fields and every one of them delivers the goods. Scorsese's old friend Robbie Robertson of The Band cobbled together an eclectic and foreboding mix of avant garde classical music to telegraph instant dread while Scorsese's longtime, multi-Academy Award-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker saw to the taxing sleight of hand duties.
As stunning as it is to look at and listen to, the movie falls way short in the plot. This wouldn't be a big deal if this was a straight-ahead horror or action/adventure movie, but at its core "Shutter Island" is a mystery crime thriller in which plot means everything. There are just enough gaps and pointless red herrings in the story to consider the movie a narrative failure, and anyone paying close attention will be able to figure out the big twist long before the one-hour mark of the 138-minute production.
Starring for the fourth time in a Scorsese picture is Leonardo DiCaprio as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels. Looking like he fell out of a Mickey Spillane novel after an all-night bender, Daniels is the prototypical '50s pot-boiler detective. Rumpled, angry, paranoid and short-tempered, the World War II veteran Daniels volunteers to head the investigation of a missing mental patient at an Alcatraz-like facility located on an island in Boston Harbor.
With his even-keel partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) backing him up, the blustery Daniels gets right to business and up in everyone's faces, and from what we can see, he has good reason. The burly guards resent Daniels doing their job for them and the grudgingly polite chief psychiatrist Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) is reticent to offer any kind of assistance. Crawley's sole concession is to allow Daniels to interview the staff and a few select patients, but it's clear they've all been coached and tell the detectives next to nothing.
The further Daniels pushes toward the truth, the more intense are his flashbacks and blinding migraines. Memories of a Nazi prison camp and the death of a loved one haunt him, derail the investigation and cause him to lose perspective. After a while Daniels can't distinguish fact from fantasy.
In addition to the impressive bells and whistles, Scorsese further distracts us from the flimsy story by having DiCaprio share the screen with an array of crack supporting players. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Michelle Williams and the legendary Max Von Sydow all shine brightly in their extended cameos.
When Paramount studios shifted the release date of the movie from October 2009 to February 2010, red flags popped up everywhere. You don't move a Scorsese film from the fall to the winter without good reason. In retrospect, the release date change was a smart move. This is a popcorn movie, not an awards contender and releasing it this weekend with no other new mainstream competition will afford it maximum earning potential.
If "Shutter Island" had been made by any other director, it would be considered by most to be far better than it is, but this is a Scorsese film and we've come to expect more from him. In many respects this movie is a lot like "Avatar." It's good but not great and calls on modern technology to cover up its storytelling shortcomings. (Paramount)