Sunday, March 7, 2010

‘Shutter Island’: Stylistic Hot Air

Watching the bewildering box office hit SHUTTER ISLAND this weekend, I was reminded of the lyrics from British group Talk Talk’s 1982 eponymous song:

I'm tired of listening to you
Talking in rhymes
Twisting round to make me think
You're straight down the line

All you do to me is talk talk
talk talk, talk talk
All you do to me is talk talk

Ok, so maybe Martin Scorsese has earned the right to engage in an indulgent mess of a film like SHUTTER ISLAND. After all, this is the guy responsible for classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, and CASINO. But, understanding that Scorsese knows his way around a tight suspense thriller (CAPE FEAR, anyone?) makes this exercise in cinematic excess all the more puzzling – and, ultimately, disappointing.

Scorsese directs from a script by Laeta Kalogridis (pulling double duty here as an Executive Producer) based on the novel by Dennis (MYSTIC RIVER) Lehane. It’s 1954 when the film opens on two US Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), making their way through the Boston Harbor Islands to the titular location, where a hospital for the criminally insane and a MIA murderess await. Investigation into the missing female inmate’s whereabouts ensues as a hurricane bears down on the island and the increasingly ominous hospital shrinks thwart the federal lawmen’s access to pertinent patient records. DiCaprio, who spends the majority of the film furrowing his brow, reveals some personal motivations of his own for wanting this assignment in the first place, while the mostly venerable cast including Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, and the always-outstanding Patricia Clarkson imbue the proceedings with a sense of prestige and solemnity despite the trench-coated silliness that abounds.

But this flashback-laden, dialogue-heavy talkfest quickly overstays any welcome Scorsese is able to establish with cinematographer Robert Richardson’s opening shots of the imposingly creepy titular island. He’s heavy-handed with his clues and red herrings, giving away the film’s big SIXTH SENSE-style twist ending within the first ten minutes of the film from DiCaprio’s first headache to his early maniacal chain smoke on the deck of the boat transporting them to the island. Scorsese spends the bulk of the film (clocking in at a hefty two hours and eighteen minutes) moving DiCaprio from location to location around the island engaging everyone from psychiatrists to psychopaths in endless conversation.

It’s all overplayed to the point of tedium so that by the time the competently executed finale rolls around, we’re checking our watch trying to calculate the remaining running time while mulling over the Applebee’s menu in our head.

SHUTTER ISLAND is not without its bright spots. Ted Levine makes a memorable appearance playing the institution’s sinister warden. Mainstream audiences will recognize him as serial killer “Buffalo Bill” from 1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, while savvy genre buffs will note that Levine was the uncredited voice of Rusty Nail, the murderous trucker in 2001’s JOY RIDE. His appearance is so welcome among the seemingly endless dialogue that one half hopes he’ll ask DiCaprio to “put the lotion in the bucket” with his man bits tucked inconspicuously between his legs. Comeback kid Jackie Earle Haley (so achingly brilliant in 2006’s LITTLE CHILDREN) also shows up briefly as a bruised and battered patient.

Other highpoints include Dante Ferretti’s atmospheric production design and longtime Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson’s decision to eschew an original soundtrack for an eclectic selection of modern classical music that’s as bold as it is beautiful (albeit irritatingly thunderous at times).

Visually, SHUTTER ISLAND hits all the right marks – from set design to costumes. It’s the convoluted script and anemic pacing that makes this one trip worth putting off until the DVD arrives. If you like psychological thrillers heavy on the psychobabble and light on the actual thrill, however, catch the next ferry to your local multiplex.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


B-Sol said...

I also loved the Levine cameo--in every Scorsese movie, I feel like there's a particular role he originally intended for DeNiro. That was the one in Shutter Island, I can't help but feel. Anyway, I did enjoy it a lot more than you did. I'm thinking I may be getting dense in my mid 30s, because I never saw the twist coming, and I definitely seem to be in the minority on that!

Pax Romano said...

"maybe Martin Scorsese has earned the right to engage in an indulgent mess of a film ": Yes, it was called "New York, New York".

Vince Liaguno said...

Brian, if you're dense in your mid-thirties, just wait until your early forties when the mind is apparently preternaturally sharp(!). I so wanted to the like this film. It was one of those releases I couldn't wait for.

Pax, I guess directors like Scorsese earn the right more than once in his career.

Reesa said...

Thanks, Vince! Nathan and I were torn on this, as can be seen by the following conversation:

(Looking at a poster advertising the movie while waiting for a flight)

N: That looks like a movie we wouldn't want to see.

R: Yeah that poster makes it look like a B-grade slasher flick. But it's Scorsese, he's supposed to be good.

N: Hmm, that's true...

R: And everyone keeps telling me DiCaprio can Really Act, they Swear.

N: Let's think about it.

But thanks to you we can scratch it off the list and go with our initial impression.

Ross Horsley said...

I put off reading this review because I had a hunch about the twist from seeing the trailer and didn't want to spoil it any further... But maybe I should've just saved myself some time by reading it first!

Part of me wants to think the film isn't ALL about the twist, but the fact that there's so little else going on (other than stylistically) and the fact that Scorsese felt the need to explain it TWICE, I just don't buy it. Good review!

jmcozzoli said...

I agree and good choice of words here. Stylistic hot air it is. Much caressing of the visual medium over the story. Beautiful, artistic, but never really gels. Saw the ending a mile off. Good story. But less wow and more pow would have done it for me.