Available this week on DVD, “Shutter Island,” directed by the masterful filmmaker Martin Scorcese, is a great picture to look at and listen to. Working with his longtime crew and a script adapted from Dennis Lehane’s chilling novel, Scorcese has once again taken chances, risking befuddling and losing his audience. Though there is much to admire cinematically about this one, it just doesn’t pay back the effort required to attend to it.
The opening shot should tip us off: a ferry boat emerges from a dense fog covering Boston Harbor. It’s 1954, and U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is heading to Shutter Island, home of a hospital for the criminally insane. As he emerges from the washroom, sick and disoriented, he meets his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), apparently for the first time. Their mission is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the patients, Rachel Soldado.
Passing through the grounds, dominated by a Civil War fortress converted to Ward C, for the hardest cases, the two men are accosted by inmates who smile and nod familiarly, knowingly. They meet the head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), and the hospital’s director, Dr. Naehring (the venerable Max von Sydow), neither of whom seems particularly inclined to aid the investigation.
Also hindering Teddy are the migraine headaches that continually incapacitate him and the troubling dreams—if that’s what they are—in which he remembers the death of his wife, Dolores, in an apartment fire set by an arsonist named Laedis. It develops that Teddy has asked for this assignment in order to find Laedis, whom he has heard is imprisoned on the island. His partner fears that Teddy wants to kill the man whom he blames for his wife’s death, though Teddy claims otherwise.
Then, as the ferry boat captain had warned, a storm hits the island, cutting the power, loosing the inmates, allowing Teddy access to various sites—Ward C, a lighthouse—that have been declared out of bounds. He meets one (or two?) Rachels; his partner falls (or is pushed?) off a cliff; he encounters Laedis (maybe) and wrestles with him in the dark, dripping labyrinth that is Ward C.
About halfway through all this, the viewer may ask, as Teddy does, “What the hell is goin’ on here?” Add in Teddy’s flashbacks to his wartime experience in the liberation of Dachau, some ominous talk about the House Un-American Affairs Committee, the hydrogen bomb, the general madness of the world, the “war” going on in the mental health field—just to name a few thematic concerns—and you have a story rich with implications, but thin on clarity.
And there’s the rub. Despite all the hovering menace and dark hints, the payoff is distressingly disappointing. OK, it explains a lot of the odd goings on, but it shifts the gears too drastically. Scorcese has been compared to Hitchcock as a cinematic giant. The relevant film here is “Psycho,” a classic film with a notoriously flat ending, which also involves a psychiatrist explaining some bizarre happenings.
“Shutter Island” is rated “R” for violence and language. I’d be stunned if your average teenage would sit through it. Even your current cinemast and reviewer—a big Scorcese fan—found himself checking his watch and hoping it would end soon. Skip it.