Long coats, loud ties and big fedoras: refreshing sights for retro movie lovers.
By Lee Pfeiffer
The bad buzz regarding Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island began even before the film was released. Paramount postponed the premiere from the height of Oscar season to the dog days of February, ostensibly for marketing purposes. In reality, most critics felt it signaled that the movie was not worthy of coughing up the cost of an Oscar campaign. Now the film has opened, and studio executives look vindicated: the movie is on track to being Scorsese's biggest hit. Reviewers weren't as kind. There were raves from the likes of Roger Ebert, but the New York Times called the movie "terrible". The consensus from most critics is that, while it isn't without value, in the end, it is a pretentious movie that falls short of its goals.I find the film to be atmospheric, rather than pretentious. At its heart, it's a movie about production design and Dante Ferretti, who is a long-time collaborator of Scorsese's, comes through with some triumphant set pieces. Some critics have attacked Scorsese for using a sledgehammer to remind audiences the film takes place in 1954, but I found the costumes and habits of the characters to be refreshing. It's hard to find movies where you can relish actors wearing long coats, fedoras, loud Hawaiian ties and proudly engaging in the politically incorrect habit of puffing away on cigarettes and cigars.
With a running time of 138 minutes, Scorsese is clearly in no hurry to convey his story, which concerns Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a detective sent to a mental institution located on a remote island to investigate a patient who has inexplicably disappeared. From the moment he steps off the storm-tossed boat, he's in a frightening and intimidating world where every individual seems to be barely concealing a sense of threat and menace. The island's top psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) drips with charm but is clearly hiding a terrible secret about the progressive methods he's using to treat the dangerous patients in the institution. Another prominent doctor (Max Von Sydow, looking ageless) is equally charming and equally off-putting. Before long, the viewer is swept into a complex storyline into which Scorsese throws just about everything: HUAC Commie witch hunts, atomic bomb conspiracies, torturous medical procedures, mind-bending drugs and Nazi death camps. About the only element missing are all those people from the grassy knoll in Dallas. Consequently, the viewer becomes impatient to get to the bottom of these seemingly disconnected storylines. Scorsese even utilizes the old standby of revealing plot devices via the protagonist's nightmares and flashbacks, a technique that had moss on it when Kubrick also used it in The Shining.
Ultimately, the film builds to a conclusion that helps put the disparate plot points into context, but many critics are complaining that the ending is obtuse and left open to interpretation - which is exactly what I like about the movie. Like Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, Scorsese respects the intelligence of the audience and doesn't feel compelled to spell out every aspect of the story. Those who want a sequence in which it is revealed that the butler did it had best look elsewhere. The movie is not without flaws. It does drag in spots and there are more red herrings on display than at the Tokyo fish market. Nevertheless, the performances are all top-notch, with DiCaprio doing yeoman work and excelling in his sequences with old pros Kingsley and Von Sydow (whose roles would have been played by Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in another era.) Shutter Island is, at heart, Scorsese's version of an old time horror flick. He doesn't quite pull it off flawlessly, but it's at least an original and complex concept that will keep you riveted, at least most of the time.