Review: Shutter Island

Shh, don't tell anyone how much this movie stinks...
So that's what happened to the "Where's the Beef" Lady.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I did.  Truly.  You have a lot of great components working together- Martin Scorcese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo- but at the end of the day Shutter Island is a two-hour boat ride toward a disappointing twist that fails to justify the movie’s existence in any way.  The audience is led around confusing curves in typical b-movie fashion, where cryptic nonsense masquerades itself as clues and “intrigue” abounds, only to later undercut itself when the riddles are finally solved.  There’s some beautiful cinematography going on here, and some great casting, a particularly skilled performance by Leonardo DiCaprio- which we’ve come to expect at this point- but nothing amounts to anything, and aside from a strikingly dark final sequence, there’s absolutely nothing to write home about.  And that’s a damn shame.  There could have been something special here, but there just isn’t.

Everything about the physical landscape and geography of Shutter Island is compelling, and all the costuming and make-up crew really did their job.  The dream sequences in the movie are vaguely psychedelic and a reminder that Scorcese still has a few tricks up his sleeves in his autumn years.  The real problem is that the story is so bland and listless that it ends up undermining all the polish on the exterior.  Leo’s character wanders from situation to situation aimlessly, sharing more in common with Tim Burton’s incarnation of Wonderland’s Alice than a hard-boiled detective.  One of the major necessities in a movie with a twist is to lead the audience down a red herring path so that the twist blind-sides everybody.  There’s literally no red herring in this movie, aside from the fact that the previews suggest some supernatural element in the film’s proceedings that never comes to be.  I felt a little misled, hoping that there would be something thrilling at some point, but beyond the second-to-last-scene, a flashback sequence that further extrapolates the nature of the movie’s so-called mystery, there isn’t really anything surprising to be found.

Some of my friends have claimed that they saw the twist coming.  I, for one, did not see it coming, but still found it equally dissatisfying.  As you can probably tell, it is very difficult to discuss this movie without revealing the nature of the climactic turn in the final act, but really, if you knew the truth it would be damned hard to get you into the seats.  It’s not that the twist is ridiculous or inappropriate- it’s that it’s incredibly boring and doesn’t serve to elevate the movie in any way.  Instead you’re left with disappointment and the sense that every single character you’ve met along the way is probably somebody else, and a less interesting version of the character you thought you knew.  It’s incredibly frustrating, in the same way as reading a story where the ending is “all a dream” or a bad improv scene where someone announces at the very end that the characters have secretly been on a submarine the entire time.

There’s a beautiful subtlety in the final scene of the movie, where it seems like Leo’s character makes a serious decision toward the redemption of his soul, but I have a feeling it’ll be lost under the blaring badness of the “surprise” moment one scene earlier.  And frankly, it still feels like it’s too little-too late in a situation where subtlety and grace would have aided a much better screenplay to begin with.  Again, I really wanted to enjoy this movie, but the conclusion makes the whole thing stink worse than the rat at the end of The Departed.  (And if you loved that rat, there’s about fifty million more in this movie, Willard-style.)  Brief moments of color and flair can’t distract from the fact that the story is dull as a sack of bricks, and the good will that permeates the first act is endlessly squandered by the third.  And speaking of squandered, if you’re going to put Jackie Earle Haley in your movie, at least give him something to do.  The same goes for Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and everybody else that this movie pointedly misuses for the sake of narrative ambiguity.  Kudos to Scorcese for barely making a watchable picture in the same washed-out color scheme as Peter Jackson’s deplorable King Kong, but at least having the decency to make his movie less than sixteen hours long.

The further I get from Shutter Island, the less inclined I am to ever visit it again.  It’s the narrative equivalent of the Sixth Sense, if the twist at the end of that movie was that Bruce Willis was secretly a fisherman the whole time.  A twist, to be sure, but honestly, what’s the point?  Once the movie blindsides you with its ham-handed moral about psychiatric care, the somniferous effects have already taken hold, and you’ll be sentenced to your own psychotropic dream sequence, complete with more interesting plot developments than anything you saw onscreen.

Grade:  C-

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3 thoughts on “Review: Shutter Island

  1. I think you have written the review that is closest to my feelings about this film. I thought the implication of the final scene were all the more chilling for how bright & sunny everything was.

    Almost everything else was a triumph of set design & costuming over actual storytelling.

    It was weird to watch a movie where Ben Kingsley was the most restrained performer on the screen.

  2. I just watched Schindler’s List this week and he was pretty restrained in that too. (PUN NOT INTENDED, HAPPY PASSOVER!!!) But at least his character is interesting in that movie.

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