Shutter Island, last week's box-office champ, is currently perched on screens like Poe's Raven, crowing "Nevermore" at anyone who believes that director Martin Scorsese's best work is still ahead of him.
Scorsese's latest film is a distracted, jumpy mystery-thriller characterized by its director's unusual fascination with the psychological garland that swathes its meandering central story about Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio) who arrives via boat at an island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate a mysterious patient disappearance. When the film and its able actors are not dragged down into the muck of Daniels' paranoid compulsions, it's often an effectively rain-drenched mood piece that seems designed to induce in the viewer not just anxiety but sweaty, flu-like symptoms.
It's a strange film, challenging and more clever than it first appears. But what's most strange is that its director, cinematographer, and production designer leap to life whenever the hero is unconscious. The textures and corridors of Teddy's dreams are incongruously tactile, dusted as they are by the rains of ash, snowflakes, and official documents that quickly visualize Teddy's inner turmoil; he feels convinced that his world is simultaneously burning up, evaporating, and being buried by large, sinister forces beyond his control. In a way, Shutter Island would have been far more effective if it had abandoned its story altogether and stitched and scrambled all the avant-garde stuff into a fearsome short.
Astute film critics have noted several key cinematic touchstones that burden Shutter Island's tale of extraordinary madness, but a pair of pungent mid-1960s films, Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing, haunt this film even more. The psychological horror of Polanski's and Preminger's films developed out of each director's cool distance from their subjects, which was expressed through frequent occasions when improbable jolts upset the mundane activities of everyday life. Shutter Island leaves no room for the everyday; every patient has a dark secret, every cop wants to chew your eyeballs out, and every spectacular shot of DiCaprio scaling the island's dangerous cliffs is designed to top Jimmy Stewart's seaside encounters in Vertigo.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of eerie passages in the movie, and near the end of the film, the director sets off one startling, well-timed shock. But there's a tactical problem Scorsese can't solve that stems from the tricky script. As DiCaprio's search starts to wither, there's an even stronger sense that the story's not supposed to make sense, which, even though the film's last turn of the screw occurs with its last image, is far more frustrating than liberating. Neither the technique nor the impact of discrete scenes compensates for the feeling that you've been had.