I read Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, a 336-page throat-grabbing mystery thriller, in two nearly sleepless nights. Martin Scorsese's adaptation barely kept me awake for 138 minutes. Not for lack of trying. From the opening shot of federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) taking the ferry across Boston Harbor to the asylum on the title island, Scorsese has the music pounding, and he amps up the gothic imagery of rocky cliffs, Civil War architecture, sullen gun-toting guards muttering about a storm coming, and a toothless grinning madwoman — all of it shot in a dank, sepia-tinged tint redolent of 1954, the year the film takes place. Right away, we know we're watching an Old-Fashioned Genre Picture. Problem is, we know it's Scorsese's self-conscious fabrication, and that tends to defuse the terror and, ultimately, unravel Lehane's tautly diabolical plotting into implausible inconsequentiality.
Shutter Island | Directed by Martin Scorsese | Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane | with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patricia Clarkson | Paramount Pictures | 138 minutes
VIEW: Photos of Long Island in Boston Harbor, the real Shutter Island.
READ: Secret Harbor, The real version of Scorsese's Shutter Island. By Christopher Klein.
But for a while it's fun to go through the motions of pulp suspense and lurid melodrama. Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are visiting Shutter Island's Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane in order to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), who was incarcerated for drowning her three children. There they encounter resistance from the place's head shrink, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who restricts their access to needed information and otherwise acts suspiciously uptight.
But that's the least of Daniels's problems. He's racked by dreams about his wife (Michelle Williams), who was killed when a pyromaniac set fire to their apartment. He also has recurrent flashbacks to the war, when his unit liberated Dachau; these are exacerbated when he meets Dr. Cawley's slick, Nordic-accented colleague Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), who has all the charm of Auschwitz's Angel of Death, Dr. Mengele.
Meanwhile, an approaching hurricane has trapped Daniels and Aule on the labyrinthine island; that leads to spectacular lightning effects and a rain-lashed search of a cemetery that ends in the dead end of a mausoleum. The clues to the mystery tantalize, but the solution is maddeningly elusive, and Daniels fears his own judgment is growing unreliable. By the time he hallucinates that his wife is bursting into flames and crumbling into ashes in his arms, he's started to wonder what's in those Luckies he's chainsmoking.
For a while, so does the audience. The story toys with Cold War paranoia, throwing out hints of HUAC-funded thought police and mind-control experiments. Or is it simply that Daniels's mind is fraying into nightmares that look more and more like what The Lovely Bones might have been had Scorsese directed it?
The real problem with Daniels, however, is the actor portraying him. DiCaprio's character starts out puking in a toilet and never really loses that nauseous expression. He's more of a noodle than a noir anti-hero, without the credible toughness to take you along with him through his inwardly spiraling descent into either delusion or discovery.
Then again, it doesn't seem Scorsese is all that interested in having you suspend your disbelief in an artifice contrived by a genius who's seen every film ever made. Shutter Island makes me wonder whether he's forgotten how to make his own.