Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 27, 2020)
Despite all the plaudits and praise earned by Martin Scorsese over the years, the director never became much of a box office draw. That said, he managed to find better commercial success late in his career, as all four of his movies that made $100 million or better in the US came out from 2004 to date.
In second place on that list comes 2010’s Shutter Island, a thriller with a creepy vibe that makes it unusual in the Scorsese filmography. Set in 1954, we go to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a complex that resides on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.
This location hosts two US Marshals: Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). They come to the facility to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando.
The Marshals soon find a much deeper plot on Shutter Island. As he digs into the complications, Teddy also confronts the real reason he requested the assignment.
If you look at Scorsese’s filmography, only one movie seems similar to Shutter in terms of genre: 1991’s Cape Fear, another thriller. Like Island, Cape Fear did reasonably well at the box office, but I must admit the 1991 flick left me cold, largely due to its over the top nature.
While I hoped Island wouldn’t suffer from the same fate, it does. Maybe “psychological thriller” just isn’t Scorsese’s bag, as Island offers a messy, less than stimulating piece of work.
Like Cape Fear, Island comes with a good pedigree. It adapts a novel from Dennis Lehane, an author whose works Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River turned into high-quality movies. Island also boasts an excellent cast, with talent all up and down the line.
None of this means much if the filmmaker lacks a connection to the material, and that seems to be the case with Island, as Scorsese never grounds himself here. I get the impression Scorsese remains an “outsider” who can’t find much of a connection to the tale.
That causes problems, as Scorsese’s best films managed some form of link to the filmmaker’s life or interests. Whether related to his Italian-American heritage or to his status as a New Yorker or to his religious devotion, one can pretty easily locate a correlation between Scorsese’s beliefs/past and his most successful efforts.
As far as I can tell, Island fails to present any similar connection, and I get the feeling Scorsese works here essentially as a “hired gun”. It seems that he liked the screenplay and decided to give it a whirl.
Which is fine, and for another director, this apparent absence of personal meaning probably would be less detrimental. In Scorsese’s hands, though, I think his failure to find a real connection to the tale proves problematic, as he never seems to invest in it to a significant degree.
Like his version of Cape Fear, Island brings us a Scorsese devoid of nuance. He imbues the film with all sorts of over the top moments, all of which make it grating and tough to embrace. Even when the narrative should draw us in, Scorsese’s overly dramatic choices keep us at a distance.
This lack of subtlety stretches to other areas, and it doesn’t help that Island seems awfully long for a genre flick of this sort. At 138 minutes, it doesn’t know when to quit, and fatigue starts to set in well before the credits roll.
Not that I’m sure a shorter Island would work much better, though at least it might feel less redundant. Too much of the film seems to make the same points over and over, and it turns into little more than one creepy dream-like sequence after another.
All of these come with diminishing results, especially since the movie’s “secrets” and “twists” become obvious early. To avoid spoilers, I won’t detail these, but I can state that nothing that materializes along the way comes as a shock. Scorsese treats the story in such a blunt manner that it lacks the ability to surprise the viewer – everything seems so “off” that we fail to find drama in the inevitable conclusion.
Not even the excellent cast can elevate this tale. DiCaprio and the rest mostly overact and leave no room for nuance in their characters.
As he approaches his 80th birthday, I remain glad that Scorsese continues to work, as he maintains the ability to create quality films. Unfortunately, Shutter Island represents a “swing and a miss”, as the movie fails to deliver anything more than a lackluster thriller.