I really feel bad about giving a Martin Scorsese movie the same rating I gave Percy Jackson, but Percy’s rating was saved by its ambitions—it was meant to be a light, dumb teen movie, and largely succeeded. Every minute of Shutter Island is far better than any minute of Percy Jackson, but in taken as a serious, suspenseful drama with an ambitiously complex narrative, this film doesn’t hit its mark any better than the candy-coated kids’ flick.
Shutter Island has a fantastic cast and the bravura style of a bold genius, but it’s uneven, with a convoluted and paranoid narrative woven with dreamy, disturbing flashbacks, that seems to lose some momentum toward the end, with a payoff that won’t satisfy every ticketholder.
The first two-thirds of the 138-minute film is fairly tight, a paranoid mystery tale whose moody camera work is nearly overpowered by a dum dum DUM soundtrack that Scorsese wields like a blunt instrument. Baby-faced Leo DiCaprio, an actor so compelling you can believe him as a grownup, is introduced as a federal marshal sent with a new partner to handle an investigation on an isolated island madhouse. It’s a mystery verging on the supernatural, in which a violent madwoman has escaped a locked cell without a trace, and DiCaprio is instantly suspicious of the asylum’s staff, led by Ben Kingsley.
DiCaprio descends into a world of paranoia geared to the film’s 1954 setting, with the atom bomb, communist infiltration and rumors of Manchurian Candidate all twisted in with DiCaprio’s own problems—he was among the soldiers who liberated Dachau, and is haunted both by those horrors and, more recently, the tragic death of his wife. He comes with an agenda beyond catching an escapee. It’s a world in which essential truths are being withheld and the viewer does not know whom to trust. The suspense builds in a story that feels like all of Lost boiled down to one genius movie, until our obsessive, relentless hero forces his way to the truth.
Where Scorsese heightened the investigative portion of the film with about three Hitchcock movies’ worth of Hitchcockery, the climax that appears to reveal the truth behind the madness is presented in a quieter manner that makes the film nearly lurch to a halt. It’s also a daring narrative moment, as Scorsese hasn’t necessarily prepared the audience for the revelations in a way that feels fair. There’s the risk, then, of leaving the audience deeply disappointed, but the ending saves the day with just an element of ambiguity, and a brilliant final line from DiCaprio that prevents the resolution of the mystery from just laying there flat on the screen.
Shutter Island reminds me of an earlier Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration, Gangs of New York, in that both films feature bold, electric storytelling, sprawling stories that nearly get out of control, and powerful performances that help the whole mishmash cohere. Shutter Island isn’t an easy movie to take, but it’s from the hands of America’s greatest living filmmaker, and therefore should not be missed.