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‘Shutter’ takes Scorsese out of comfort zone

POSTED: February 17, 2010 11:30 p.m.
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Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo, left, as Chuck Aule investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an asylum for the criminally insane in "Shutter island."

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"Shutter Island" is set in 1954, during postwar years in which the economy boomed, WWII veterans struggled to cope with unimaginable trauma and psychological theory and practice started to creep into the American consciousness.

Within this backdrop, U.S. Marshals — pronounced "mah-shals" since the movie is set in Boston — Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Shutter Island, an asylum for the criminally insane.

Rachel Salanndo (played by both Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson), imprisoned because she drowned her three children, has somehow escaped from the facility, which makes the security on Alcatraz look soft.

No one at the asylum is forthcoming. They all seem intent on obstructing the investigation, particularly the two supervising psychologists, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow).

Teddy is convinced they are on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy involving inhumane psychological testing and anticommunism.

All the while, however, Teddy experiences hallucinations and nightmares caused by his memories of Nazi death camps and the death of his wife (Michelle Williams). Teddy’s conspiracy theory slowly becomes so absurdly complex we doubt its validity, while his trauma and paranoia increasingly take over what he believed to be the real, waking world.

"Shutter Island" does its best to create a labyrinth in which we can’t distinguish between reality and nightmare or between truth and paranoid invention. Everything can be read two ways, and it should be the sort of film that we immediately want to watch again now that we know how to get out of the maze.

But "Shutter Island" isn’t enjoyable or compelling enough to bring us back a second time.

Director Martin Scorsese’s work — even his second-tier films — bristle with exuberance and nervous energy. He moves his camera and uses music like no one else. And each Scorsese film plays like a love letter to the movies themselves.

Sadly, "Shutter Island" lacks all of those Scorsese trademarks.

It feels as if we’re watching Scorsese trying to make someone else’s movie. He’s far outside his comfort zone, and it shows. While "Taxi Driver" explored the disturbed mind of a combat veteran, "Shutter Island" is Scorsese’s first true psychological thriller. At no point does he seem sure of the tone he’s trying to create.

Certain scenes come straight out of the horror movie handbook, clumsily trying to build suspense that leads to a jump-out-of-your-seat scare. None of these scenes work.

This is the first Scorsese film to rely heavily on special effects, especially during Teddy’s nightmare sequences. Those scenes are heavy-handed and far too literal, from design to execution.

One can’t help but think a different director would have been better suited to the movie. For instance, I would love to see this directed by David Cronenberg ("A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises").

"Shutter Island" isn’t a terrible movie. This won’t become an embarrassment every time someone puts together a Scorsese retrospective. But those of us who love and admire Scorsese’s work are destined to feel profoundly disappointed any time an artist on his level produces something that inspires nothing more than a shrug.

It’s especially disappointing in "Shutter Island," a movie that had so many things working in its favor. The source novel, crew and cast are as promising as it gets, but all this talent never gels.

I’ll draw on one of Scorsese’s other passions, music, for a summary comparison. "Shutter Island" is like an all-star jam session, the kind that frequently closes awards shows and music festivals. An incredible ensemble of talent is up there making noise and it should be great, but they never harmonize, it wastes a lot of talent, and it doesn’t live up to its billing.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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