Count this Scorsese fan as officially worried: will this audacious, innovative filmmaker fade away into the kind of unenthused formula that now threatens to define the legacy of Woody Allen? Of course, only time will really tell, but having loved the bulk of Marty's output long enough to regret seeing him being awarded his first Best Director Oscar for some of the most phoned-in work of his career (sorry, Departed fans; having now seen it three times, I've liked it less and less each go around), I can't help but wonder if Hollywood has succeeded only in nudging him in the absolute wrong artistic direction. Shutter Island is by many counts a skilled bit of filmmaking, but the points it scores are mostly technical, rendering it a mere beautiful construct devoid of spirit. To take a note from the film's flirtations with the paranormal, where is the ghost in this machine?
The rapturous cinematic orchestrations of GoodFellas and Gangs of New York - two of the films that best embody Scorsese's legendary bravura, his "movie brat" appeal - have given way of late to flashy disconnect, from the rhythmless bludgeoning of The Departed to this hacky procedural thriller, in which Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, whose method acting here fails in that he lets us see the strings) investigates a prisoner missing at an island-based, high-security psychiatric hospital. From the hot red nail polish sported by the ethereal Michelle Williams to the migraine-representative lights that ravage DiCaprio's psyche, Shutter Island is often lavish to behold, but the seams too often show here, and in ways downright embarrassing for a director of this caliber (notice the inconsistently matched shot/reverse shots of Williams late in the film).
A tonal misfire, Shutter Island almost begs for camp to enliven the proceedings, its proper thriller etiquette hot to the touch but only by constant force from all angles; brighter lights and louder volume represents trauma, etc., while Laeta Kalogridis's script (from Dennis Lehane's novel) is damned to let any details up for the audience to infer. Wonky expositional stretches and incongruous dream/reality parallels, Shutter Island is hopefully a bump in the road more than an indicator of things to come. Will we be tasting a fine wine in Scorsese's latter years, or the staleness of vinegar? That the film occasionally works (the final sequences, and the last shot in particular, gave me chills) only serves to better highlight its uneven foundation and lamentable deficiencies, which seems to stem from something far worse than lack of talent: lost motivation. Scorsese stokes the flames when he should be letting his pot simmer.
UPDATE 2/22/10: I feel the need to add more to this conversation, even before I see the film a second time (something I knew I'd want to do by the half-way point of my first viewing). Right here, I believe, is a key example of why we need critics, by which I mean not old guys passing off opinions as fact, but energetic, passionate, and diverse minds connecting over a shared interest that all are hopefully well educated upon. Without the intense debate going on over this film right now, I'd have probably not returned to it for some time, if at all (and anyone who says they've never found something great thanks to someone else, be it a professional critic or just a recommendation off a stranger, is almost definitely a liar). Now, I'm more excited than ever to watch it, even having already "seen" it. I use that term tentatively; sometimes we fail to realize how problematic a viewing experience, often for personal reasons we can't help but bring in with us at the time. Let me simply say that I consider my experience, and resulting piece, to be problematic, and sincerely hope my first impression was wrong. I suspect it will be. Readers, don't listen to me: go see this movie.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese Screenplay by: Laeta Kalogridis Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas 2010, Rated R, 138 minutes