Martin Scorsese, the director responsible for several cinematic masterpieces, has taken a number of unpredictable twists and turns over the course of his career. Most recently, he appears to have entered a badass-but-dopey period. His previous endeavor in this phase, “The Departed,” was a highly entertaining crime romp that whittled his trademark macho bravura down to its crackling essence. “Shutter Island,” his latest effort, doubles down on the trashy pulp, all swagger and light on emotional import; it’s as if Scorsese feels obligated to make up, film by film, for the mushy Oscar-bait (“The Age of Innocence,” “Kundun,” “The Aviator”) that befuddled many fans.
“Shutter Island” opens with a pair of federal marshals (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) on a boat bound for a mysterious island that houses a mental hospital … “for the criminally insane,” DiCaprio intones as the ominous strings kick in, and one can almost imagine a hokey evil laugh as punctuation. The die is cast — B-movie schlock is not just the film’s tone, but its raison d’etre. Upon arriving on the island, we are treated to a sublimely shot (if cartoonish) gothic playground — a foreboding Civil War-era fort, leaky hallways, dark waves thrashing against darker rocks, various crazies leering creepily, and (of course) a lighthouse bearing ominous secrets.
The marshals are there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the hospital’s patients, who has vanished from her room without a trace. Employing his supreme gift for menacing ambiguity, Ben Kingsley hams it up as the institution’s maybe-benevolent-maybe-evil director. Dark secrets abound, and DiCaprio pinches his face inward in distressed confusion as he tries to navigate the maze (anguish, for this actor, is indistinguishable from constipation).
I shouldn’t divulge too much more about the plot, because the film hinges on its big twists. No matter, the story is largely beside the point. The setting and setup are in place merely to offer Scorsese an opportunity to play around with every trick in his bag.
And play he does. The old master is on showoff overdrive: heavy tracking shots, film-buff in-jokes, jump cuts and odd visual skips, haunting flashbacks, Lynchian dream sequences awash in fantastical color. Scorsese bombards us like a talented film student with ADD. Every idea and image comes crashing forth — frozen Holocaust victims, beautiful ghosts, graveyard hurricanes, a thousand rats parading out of a hole, a beautiful woman turning into ash amidst a man’s embrace, a Nazi slowly bleeding to death out of his face. The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach offers no pause, and the potential power of any one image is undercut by the totality of the barrage.
I should say, though, Scorsese still has chops and gusto. Visually and sonically, the film features any number of breathtaking and mind-bending moments; it’s just that it doesn’t add up to a film we emotionally invest in. Instead, it’s a tone poem that’s all tone and no poetry. The nonsensical patchwork of tension and stimuli is less like a genre film than a vapid music video (for a psychedelic death-metal band?).
For the forgiving viewer, the film’s sensory excess, incoherence and chaotic mish-mash of styles and cinematic references may register in the end as a vital part of the experience. With motifs of conspiracy, psychotropic drugs, insanity, fantasy and delusion, perhaps the film aims to make the viewer as disoriented as its protagonist. Unfortunately, the crazy-movie-about-craziness approach offers diminishing returns on both insight and entertainment; after a while, it merely left me nauseous. Maybe it would have been terrifying or ecstatic if I was on some of the drugs mentioned in the film, but from my sober seat, it wasn’t a wild trip — by the end it was an eye-rolling slog.