The word was not good.

SHUTTER ISLAND, initially positioned as a fall release and talked up as yet another Oscar-bait epic from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, was moved to February, repeating the pattern of last year’s THE SOLOIST, which went forgotten at awards time. Then Paramount outsourced the publicity to an independent company. And then the all-media screening was held, three days prior to opening in a manner that shuts out most weekly deadlines, in one of the Paramount lot’s less-large theaters, with absolutely no guests permitted (an unusual precaution).


But you know, they said similar things about TITANIC, and Leo was in that one too. SHUTTER ISLAND even begins with him on a boat. And it is Scorsese, after all.

Unfortunately for the director, and the audience, SHUTTER ISLAND is a disaster. I haven’t read the Dennis Lehane novel it’s based on, but I suspect the fault does not lie with the source material, as every other scene made me think to myself that David Fincher could have directed the script better. Hell, I’m not sure but that Kevin Smith or even Uwe Boll couldn’t have directed it better – they would certainly not have wasted as much money on needless gaudiness, plus Boll would still have cast Ben Kingsley. This doesn’t feel like feels like Baz Luhrmann with a bad hangover (the fact that DiCaprio spends much of the movie either puking or having headaches and hallucinations similarly suggests a kind of morning-after vibe).

DiCaprio is Teddy Daniels, a U.S. federal marshal -- or, as he says it, “maaashal” – from Boston, heading to an island in Boston harbor (“haaaber”) upon which an old Civil War fort has become the centerpiece of a lunatic asylum. Together with new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), he’s there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female inmate named Rachel Solando. But as the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM of the soundtrack, and permanently gray sky (albeit one that looks rather blatantly green-screened in) clue us in, it becomes apparent that something more menacing is afoot. The year is 1954, which is important primarily because this story would not work if modern phone-lines and helicopters existed. Also, it means that the days of treating crazy people with medication is a relatively new idea (and possibly a bad one – SOCIAL COMMENTARY ALERT!).

Early on, Teddy starts seeing flashes of the Holocaust, and in short order, we are told that he helped to liberate Dachau at the end of World War II. These scenes are among the film’s best, a 180 from the sacred treatment of the concentration camps by the likes of Spielberg, and a suggestion that a full-on horror movie approach might be exactly what the Holocaust sub-genre needs to refresh itself.

Unfortunately, these are the only moments that suggest Scorsese can do horror. Which is particularly bad when the rest of the movie is clearly supposed to be in the horror genre. Yes, he can generate cheap thrills from loud bangs like the best of ‘em, and sure, put in a quick shot of a scary balding woman with a throat scar making a “shhh” gesture, and you’ll briefly freak me out. But repeated hallucinations of Michelle Williams as Teddy’s dead wife who occasionally evaporates into ash or drowns in blood against super-technicolor, effects-jazzed backdrops? Not scary. Just ostentatious. And certainly nothing here that looks much like an actual hallucination someone might have.

Additionally, the geography of the island is confusing when it ought to be frightening and confining. At one point, we see a lighthouse that I could have sworn was on the top of the island, but the rest of the movie, it’s really badly placed in a cove where it’s almost impossible to even get to, and half its rotation would be blocked by the cliffs anyway! The island of the title could, and should, have felt like the isolated village in THE PRISONER (which SHUTTER ISLAND appears to directly reference at times), or the WICKER MAN island (either version).

Instead, it feels like a bunch of expensive sets, and yes, I realize there are many references to other movies from Scorsese’s vast film knowledge (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and THE SNAKE PIT are among them), but those only enrich a film if the story is compelling enough to begin with. The damnedest thing is that I think this story could have been compelling, but nobody involved seemed to have much of an instinct to make it so. DiCaprio’s overacting gets worse and worse, and the Baaahstan accent helps him not a whit. Funnily enough, back when he was a teen idol and all guys were supposed to hate the guy, I liked him. I genuinely hoped he would be the next Anakin Skywalker. But this partnership with Scorsese just is not working for me. GANGS OF NEW YORK was fine, but he never made me care about Howard Hughes, and he was outperformed by Mark Wahlberg, of all people, in THE DEPARTED. Say hi to your mother for me.

(possible, vague spoiler hint below)

Oh, and for those of you who think you can guess where the movie’s going based on the can. And even once the movie tips its hand, it insists on then holding yours as it painstakingly explains what you already know. At least there’s a small note of ambiguity inserted just before the last BOOM BOOM BOOM echoes on the score.

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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