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Scorsese's 'Shutter Island' shamelessly manipulates audience

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Film review

Scorsese's 'Shutter Island' shamelessly manipulates audience

Despite its grandiose backdrop, Hitchcock homage ends with hollow cinematic trickery

In 1995, Martin Scorsese released "Casino," arguably his last great film in his own genre, the character-driven, gritty crime film. Scorsese forged that form in the fire of "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver" and the pitch-perfect "Goodfellas."

In the last 15 years, Scorsese has turned his attention to other genre films, as well as various projects — including some great music documentaries — but arguably, Scorsese's attempts to make every sort of film he has ever loved has yielded mixed results.

"Shutter Island" adapts Dennis Lehane's novel into Scorsese's version of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. Set in 1954, the film opens with a boat emerging from fog, the first of many, many obvious metaphors for the dislocation of the narrative.

Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is seasick in the ship's toilet as he travels to Shutter Island, ostensibly to investigate a disappearance. Shutter Island is the site of a Civil War military fort that now houses a hospital for the criminally insane. Almost immediately, the historical moment of the plot is fodder for cultural critique for the screenplay.

Lehane, who also wrote "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone," as well as one of the best episodes of HBO's "The Wire," tends toward high rhetoric, which only works if earned by the film's content. Though this film seems meaningful in terms of its self-important presentation, it leaves the viewer feeling vaguely titillated and ultimately dissatisfied. 

This all comes as a surprise, given the pedigree of nearly everyone involved.

Scorsese takes his pick of the Hollywood litter in terms of actors, opting once again to work with his current star-of-choice, Leonardo DiCaprio. "Shutter Island" marks the pair's fourth collaboration.

A supporting cast that includes Max Von Sydow as a Nazi doctor who has immigrated to the States, Ben Kingsley as the film's other heavy, a psychiatrist and purported miracle worker, Mark Ruffalo as DiCaprio's partner, and actresses Michelle Williams and Patricia Clarkson would seem to scream Oscar's name. 

The two-dimensional realization of Williams' Dolores, the ghost of Daniels' wife, is especially egregious. Anyone who has seen 2008's "Wendy and Lucy" or 2005 Best Picture "Brokeback Mountain" knows what this actress can do, even with little or no dialogue. Here, she is very pretty and very vacant; her most memorable onscreen aspect is her perfectly 1954 yellow patterned dress.

"Shutter Island" was held back during Oscar season, opting instead for a February wide release. A puzzler at the time, it seems fairly obvious now that the film had few Oscar prospects.

The film's "gotcha ending," the likes of which have not been seen since M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," feels like a cheap trick to play on a viewer who has traveled in the film through many of the major events of the mid-20th century.

Dachau has been liberated onscreen. The horrors of primitive psychiatric care, including the transorbital lobotomy, have been examined at length. The House Un-American Activities Committee has been name-checked ominously. Yet none of these events are adequately examined in the film, serving instead as so much set dressing for the "real" story, which is ultimately just a piece of hollow cinematic trickery.

See? You were wrong all along. Never mind that you were led there for two hours. Silly viewer.

This is not the first of Scorsese's genre experiments to fail; while 2006's "The Departed," a remake of Alan Mak's Hong Kong action film series, "Internal Affairs," won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director, several other projects have failed to produce the expected results of a Scorsese experiment.

2002's period piece "Gangs of New York" left many feeling like a bloated historical opus was not the best use of Scorsese's talents. 1993's adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," itself a cold, stilted film, received a chilly reception from many critics and audiences.

There is no question that Alfred Hitchcock is a major influence on Scorsese. He has led many a Hitchcock tribute, and is a scholar of the director's films. This makes the last five minutes of the film that much more egregious; in such psychologically intense Hitchcock films as "Vertigo" (1958) and "Marnie" (1964), revelations are made to the viewer as they are discovered by the characters in the film, and are then interrogated within the body of the film in fascinating ways.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock was certainly a master of manipulation and control, constantly monitoring the position of the viewer in relation to the narrative. Unlike the Scorsese of "Shutter Island," Hitchcock engaged the world of the 1950s with a comprehensiveness and profundity that this film opts to eschew for a big bang at the end. The payoff of such a gesture is negligible.


If you go

Shutter Island, 2010,  Paramount Pictures. 138 minutes. Rated R.

Now playing at Century Park 16, Century 20 El Con, Harkins Tucson Spectrum 18

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