Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s first collaboration, 2002’s long-delayed Gangs Of New York, Shutter Island’s release-date bump from October to February wasn’t blamed on reshoots or re-edits — not even the trailer changed over the interim. Instead, Paramount said it hoped the economy would pick up by now… now being right after the Oscars. Translation: Marty probably wasn’t headed back to the podium, and the only way this underdeveloped, overbaked period thriller could be a blockbuster is if the nation suddenly had money to burn.
DiCaprio combines his Aviator wardrobe and Departed accent to play Teddy Daniels, a “dooly-appointed federuhl mahshal” sent to the titular criminal insane asylum in hopes of finding a missing child-murderer. Frustrated by the sinister unhelpfulness of coy psychologists Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, Daniels explains to his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) that he has not one, but two ulterior motives for taking the case: an arsonist on the island killed his wife AND he heard the doctors are performing secret surgical experiments funded by HUAC! Unfortunately, WWII flashbacks and slow-moving CGI hallucinations involving spectral spouse Michelle Williams keep him too busy waking up in a sweat to make much headway on either front.
As Daniels unravels the case and just plain unravels, the script hops from character actor providing exposition (Jackie Earle Haley) to character actor providing exposition (Patricia Clarkson), with Scorsese too busy underlining the plot to bother with stabbings, neck snappings, or any of the other fun stuff you’d assume the director of Cape Fear would use to juice what’s ostensibly a horror movie. Insult to injury comes when a trailer-telegraphed twist reveals many of these conversations about cool stuff we don’t see (“If my teeth sank into your eye now, could you stop me before I blinded you?” Show, don’t tell!) may not have happened in the first place. SPOILER: The film’s climax involves Kingsley dramatically unveiling anagrams on an easel while Leo perspires in disbelief.
Actors not burdened with plot points, like Ruffalo and Williams (whose part-Ophelia/part-Medea sensuality in a final flashback would be stunning if exposition provided immediately beforehand didn’t render it redundant), hint at a better film lurking in the periphery. But with Scorsese adding nothing but some pretty professionalism to the script’s logy machinations, Shutter Island disappoints as a post-holiday thriller as much as it would as a prestige picture.