Head case: Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ is at its eerie best when it’s not trying too hard to explain things
With “Shutter Island,’’ Martin Scorsese proves susceptible to the chic of filming a Dennis Lehane bestseller. Clint Eastwood turned “Mystic River’’ into lugubrious opera; Ben Affleck pumped “Gone Baby Gone’’ full of pulp. Surprisingly, Scorsese divines Hitchcock in the competing genres of Lehane’s book, which trotted out psychological suspense, grisly melodrama, wartime horror, and some risibly punning names while spinning a yarn about two federal marshals on the hunt for an escaped mental patient.
It’s an inspired extraction though not a terribly satisfying one. This is a long, heavy film, in which Scorsese’s aerobic moviemaking turns mannered and uncharacteristically passive. The movie’s big moments hinge on long explanations, meant to clear everything up. But all the telling seems to neutralize Scorsese’s kinetic power.
When Boston Detective Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at the movie’s title destination and begins poking around the island’s mental hospital, the script by the writer and producer Laeta Kalogridis always feels like it’s playing catch up, retreating into flashbacks and dream sequences, featuring Teddy’s dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), to keep the story moving forward.
Ostensibly, Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), want to know how a murderous inmate vanished and where she is. The hospital’s creepy top doctors, played by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow with a wicked, white crew cut, aren’t much help. But the missing patient becomes beside the point. As was the case with Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,’’ Anthony Perkins in “Psycho,’’ and Tippi Hedren in “Marnie,’’ the more crucial matter is Teddy’s increasingly unsteady state of mind. Apparently, the man who set the fire that killed Dolores is also an inmate, and Teddy is hell-bent on finding him, too.
Scorsese is at home with psychologically combustible men - Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,’’ Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,’’ and Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy.’’ In “Shutter Island,’’ Scorsese enjoys tracing his fingers along Teddy’s psychic fissures. The movie creeps into his brain and reveals a perverse vibrancy. His dream Dolores leaks water and dissolves into ash. She’s a ghostly figment, and her blurry place in Teddy’s head intensifies.
The movie’s embellishments are smart. There are terrific walk-ons by John Carroll Lynch as the Barney Rubble-ish deputy warden, Ted Levine as his boss, and Robin Bartlett as the chattiest man-killer you’ll ever meet. Robbie Robertson assembled the movie’s off-kilter noise orchestrations (György Ligeti, John Adams, John Cage, Nam June Paik), and Scorsese puts them to skin-crawling use. Working with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, he offers a master class in how to conjure horror sanely. The inmate with dilated pupils who holds a finger to her lips, while looking at Teddy, seems meant for the generation of boys who grind out horror films. The movie pulls further away from the palm-frond paradise printed on Teddy’s necktie.
But to where is it pulling away? And, more importantly, why? Scorsese’s usual seamless synthesis of influences and styles feels patchy. He stages some WWII grisliness and scratches a few Asian horror tics, during several scenes in which pale dead children go for walks. The kids are victims at the Dachau concentration camp, the liberation of which Teddy participated in. And there’s something gratuitous and distressingly cold in the way the camera gazes at the frozen corpses piled outside inert boxcars.
Scorsese struggles to bring Teddy’s psychological combustibility and the movie’s historical terror to coherent or resonant life. Some of the problem is that despite the luridness and gore, the film maintains a pristine, suffocating atmosphere. Even in a work of fraught romantic oppression like 1993’s “The Age of Innocence’’ or with a strange, depressive allegory like 1999’s underrated “Bringing Out the Dead,’’ Scorsese’s filmmaking managed to descend into a visceral sort of madness. Serenity doesn’t suit him. He seems medicated.
Some of the trouble continues with his star. DiCaprio is hobbled by another shaky Boston accent, and his endless adolescence keeps him from being a credible 1950s lawman and family man. He works as hard here as he always does, but this time it’s like Holden Caulfield acting out his mental hospital years. Teddy turns out to be a sort of marionette. But there’s nothing fun about DiCaprio allowing other people to pull his strings.
Scorsese is too subdued to direct his way around the material. He and DiCaprio have to plow through it, and it’s a slog. The second hour collapses into a marathon of explanations, and, it’s true that the actors doing the clarifying - Kingsley, Ruffalo, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, and, hidden way up in a rat-infested cave, Patricia Clarkson - are entertaining. But watching them spell everything out for DiCaprio, you’re reminded that the last thing you want from a man with Scorsese’s great manic eye is a movie full of people who exist only to run their mouths.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.