Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

I’m not a fan of Martin Scorsese’s films to begin with, and even I think this material is beneath him. It says something about the state of studio-based American cinema that even after receiving Oscar and box office recognition with The Departed, the fruition of a latter-day formula, he’s stuck doing what amounts to contract work. This is an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, which is another way of saying “an asinine story with a resolution that pretends to have moral weight,” a la Clint Eastwood’s incompetent film of Mystic River, and you get that Scorsese is trying to have fun with it, positioning it as some sort of big and bold William Castle-like horror film, the dark tower, the insane asylum, the sinister denizens. But the plot is so damned hollow and Scorsese’s treatment is so straightforward and juvenile, the performances so hamhanded and obvious (solely excluding Michelle Williams, seen only in flashbacks), that there’s nothing here at all to recommend. It does vaguely resemble Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing essentially the same part, so if you liked that one… well, here you go.

It’s hard to get across the central silliness of Shutter Island if you haven’t seen it, so let’s simply state that this is a movie that leaps between implausibilities and syntaxes with a sense of manufactured dread. It begins as an almost defiantly ordinary police procedural, stuffed full with clichés that we later learn are deliberate. Then we wander into a catalog of Cuckoo’s Nest allusions — and Spellbound, and Caligari, and on and on. As an analysis and takedown of the hackneyed ideas driving B-pictures down through the ages, maybe this could be amusing — except it’s deadly serious, playing everything straight. So instead of being an enlivening or a parody of, even an homage to, the dumb AIP thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s, it simply feels exactly like one. A carbon copy we didn’t need.

So the hollow if well-edited film has little of its own to say, yet still manages to require well over two hours to say it. The wastefulness of a convoluted plot is laid out by its groan-inducing ironic twitch of an ending, which is supposed to finally leave us sad instead of furious. That doesn’t work either. It’s like several different terrible, overused ideas for movies stacked on top of and meant to undermine one another: cop as outsider, doctor as menace, investigator as patient, an entire reality as a coping mechanism. Maybe it would all make sense if it looked or felt like the fever dream it meant to be but like Inception the same year, it operates from a notion that someone with life experience in police work would have a subconscious occupied with nothing but the most head-slapping obvious TV-cop-show exchanges. Ergo: the uncooperative interviewing of the smug officials (a miscast Ben Kingsley, among others) and of course the testy exchanges with the investigating partner (Mark Ruffalo at his worst, reciting every line robotically) that erupt into histrionics.

The takeaway is that the film is really about Martin Scorsese and his experience with movies more than it’s about any of his characters, as has so often been the case in his most celebrated and successful films; even this past year’s Hugo is less a children’s tale than a veiled rant about film preservation. So Shutter Island is Scorsese’s MST3K without jokes, a movie about how fun it is to just sit and stare and gawk and watch bad movies. Except, you know, for some of us — it isn’t. It’s actually kind of painful. Even the slightly inspired flashback sequence with Michelle Williams is so divorced from any context to her character prior to all this, and as such unfair to her, that it finally seems just as over-the-top and ridiculous as the life-size fantasy the rest of the film’s meant to convey.

Technically, of course, Shutter Island looks great, though its overwrought use of state of the art “ominous” photographic tricks is tired and annoying. From what I could tell, the direction was competent, with the caveat that I stopped caring about the characters so quickly that I can’t be sure. I can say that DiCaprio’s performance is unequivocally ordinary, if not quite as bad as his turn in Inception, and that we all need to retract and rein in our bizarre excitement over him from the last decade. His range is nonexistent. But then, so is the movie’s; once you parse out the central conceit that’s supposed to be the “twist,” which won’t take more than thirty minutes if you’ve seen more than three movies in your life. It’s all point A to point B with no fun or wit, and just an act of plundering that lacks any kind of conceit or personality to lay atop its empty recitation of age-old moviemaking shortcuts.

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