Shutter Island

A small present in a big box
Martin Scorsese
Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Max Von Sydow
The Setup: 
Man summoned to dank island mental hospital to find missing patient—but is everything as it seems?

I’ve become somewhat less than a fan of Martin Scorsese over the years, from his “Look at Me, ME, Martin Scorsese!” filmmaking to the fact that apparently he feels his entire identity will be negated if he makes a film that runs under two and a half hours. It was really The Departed that drove me from vague dislike into hate, based almost solely on its indulgent running time and the fact that Scorsese wasn’t using all those extra minutes to show us anything he hadn’t already shown us—in THAT movie. In this case Scorsese has managed to limit himself to a reasonable two hours twenty minutes, but I feel a little vindicated, because in this case it is the running time itself that torpedoes the film.

Okay, so it’s 1954, and Leo as Teddy something is a federal marshall sent out to the title island to find a missing patient, Rachel Solando. He is accompanied by his partner, Mark Ruffalo as Chuck. Teddy is introduced puking, saying the ride is making him seasick [although it’s not that choppy] and that he hates water. We get some exposition about the island and its buildings. The guards eye Teddy warily as they step on shore. He and Chuck have to surrender their firearms, and we see Chuck has his gun incongruously stuck down the interior of his pants. Now, even if you hadn’t heard that the film has somewhat of a twist ending, you’d probably be figuring out that something is not quite adding up by now. I was thinking of The Wicker Man, in which a policeman is also brought to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of someone. I won’t tell you how well or not that suspicion held up.

Well, I’m sure you know that every time a character ventures to a creepy, remote spot, a hurricane is automatically generated, and such is the case here. The phones are out! The staff is uncooperative! There’s a creepy German doctor! Teddy has disturbing flashbacks to liberating Dachau! He also has disturbing flashbacks to his wife, who died in a fire! He thinks the staff are performing experiments on the patients! The guy who set the fire that killed his wife just happens to be on the island! It’s all a massive cover up, and he’s going to blow the lid off the whole thing!

This mysterious thing happens. That mysterious thing happens. Their suits get wet, so they have to wear the white suits of hospital patients. They go investigate the forbidden building 3, where a patient tells him that the whole thing was cocked up to bring him there! Blah, blah, more happens, but there’s not much point in going on, although you might start having ‘WTF?’ moments when Teddy starts engaging in some impromptu sheer cliff face climbing in extremely dangerous conditions.

Many reviews I read of this film says that you figure out the secret 15 minutes in, then are left with two hours of tediousness to sit through before it is revealed. I don’t believe that all of those people knew the real specifics of the case, but it’s true that the general idea is not at all hidden. I was quite enjoying it for a while, until I looked at my watch and realized that it had only been an hour, and I had an hour and twenty minutes to go. Until then, I had been enjoying the hyped-up DARK PORTENTS of, well, everything. Every little mote of dust is suffused with DARK PORTENT. And for a while it’s fun… until you realize that it has only been an hour.

The hyper importance of every tiny little thing, and the film’s Scorsese-indulgent running time are precisely what comes back to bite it in the ass, however. There just becomes so much that is VITALLY IMPORTANT that after a while you just shut down and stop caring. Although I will admit that I completely stopped caring about the solution to the mystery only 20 minutes before it was revealed, which is not too bad. We then have the exteeeeeendeeed revelation/exposition scene, leading into the exteeeeeeeendeeeeeeeeeeed flashback, followed by the extended coda, and topped off with the MEANINGFUL final line, while you’re starting to think “Boy, that was a whole lot of build-up to a pretty minor little mystery.” And then you start to think “THIS part could have been cut. And THAT whole thread could have been cut. And THAT whole aspect was just a waste of time.” For example, the WHOLE Nazi scenes [15 minutes] could have been reduced to a single shot and the film would not have suffered.

But I consider it a kind of divine justice because it is the very [typically Scorsese self] IMPORTANCE that dooms the film. If this had been 110 minutes, it would be a neat little mindfuck that entertained you and left you time for dinner. If it had been a lean 90 minutes you’d be dazzled and whiplashed by the ending, and leave smiling. But Scorsese just can’t do that. So you have this massive, massive build-up to a revelation that just doesn’t seem worth all the time and effort spent. And the result is a feeling of “Oh, that’s IT? Boy, I really didn’t have to pay that much attention at all.” It’s a small gift in a big package.

Should you watch it: 

If you like. I would wait for the DVD, where you can fast-forward.