Rating: 3 out of 5
Somewhere in the middle of Shutter Island, a demented prison inmate tells US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio): “This is a game, and it’s all for you.”
Martin Scorsese might have been telling himself the same thing, when he picked up Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller of a novel, and turned it into an overwrought and overlong B-movie pastiche.
The film begins with Daniels in the toilet of a ferry, throwing up from apparent seasickness. He stares into a mirror, his eyes haunted, face oozing sweat, brow furrowed with angst. “Pull yourself together,” he grunts at his reflection.
Stepping out of the toilet onto the ship’s bow, Daniels joins fellow Marshal Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Though partners, the two men – curiously - make their first introductions here.
Dressed in trench coats and hats in the classic noir tradition, the pair communicate in clunky, hard-boiled phrases and occasionally cast their eyes out at the fake-looking backdrop that substitutes for an ominous sky.
And then, out of a miasma of fog-or-cloud, the Bostonian Island of Shutter appears before them; the site is a Hitchcockian outcrop of bad vibes, a jagged rock that seems to be perennially buffeted by hurricane storms and the strain of strangled cellos.
This, we learn, is the location of an asylum for the criminally insane in 1954. Daniels and Aule are here to investigate the escape-or-disappearance of a child-murderess, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) from the facility.
Daniels and Aule are hosted by two psychologists, Drs Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max Von Sydow), both urbane and creepy by turns, who do their politest best to derail the Marshals’ investigation.
Chasing leads – and eventually ghosts – through a labyrinth of wards, dungeons, and cemeteries, Daniels finds himself caught up in his own traumatic past: he sees his wife dissolving into embers in a fire; he re-lives a military atrocity committed during the American liberation of Dachau during World War II.
In between these hallucinations and dreams, Daniels is harassed by the asylum’s hostile inhabitants: its twisted patients, scowling wardens and apathetic orderlies. They attack him in dark corners, they besiege him with theories of grisly medical research, and they preach gospels of violence in the howling wind.
All of which is supposed to add up to the film’s central mystery: Is U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels as crazy – perhaps even as criminal – as the community of psychopaths he has come to investigate?
Scorsese answers this question with practised visual flourish, but scant emotional conviction. His lead actors, illustrious as they are, are never able to perform beyond the archetypal limits of their material. The chills and thrills of individual scenes never cohere into a tale of meaningful suspense.
Shutter Island is a cinematic game, a maze of genre conventions that America’s greatest living director attacks with tedious gravity. This film needs, and lacks, the humour and cleverness of another pastiche virtuoso, Quentin Tarantino.
It’s probably a very liberating thing – Scorsese’s idea of ‘play’ after finally winning those blasted Oscars – but paying tribute to B-movie masters for the mere sake of it may turn out to be a greater thrill for the filmmaker than for his (equally long-suffering) audience.
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper premiered in Singapore last month and will be released in Malaysia on May 13.