Poor Leonardo DiCaprio. Not because he is a bad actor – that would be very far from the truth. But because he has made a career out of being the second or third best thing in any film he is in. He was good in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ but not as good as Johnny Depp. He was very good in ‘The Basketball Diaries’, but not as touching as the fact that it was based on a real story. He was fine in ‘Titanic’, but outshone by a boat and an iceberg in that film. Than there was Leo versus Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Gangs of New York’, Leo versus Tom Hanks in ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and last year it was Leo versus Kate Winslet in ‘Revolutionary Road’. To top the sadness of, it will always be Leo versus Robert de Niro (never a fair match) in every film he will ever make with Martin Scorsese.
Of which ‘Shutter Island’ is now the fourth edition, after said ‘Gangs of New York’, ‘The Aviator’ and ‘The Departed’. ‘Shutter Island’ is set on an ominous ilsand by that same name, on which Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow run an experimental mental hospital for the criminally insane. DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, who is sent there with his new partner (played by Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the escape of one of the patients. During the investigation the island is isolated from the mainland by a hurricane, and Daniels is plagued by nightmares of his deceased wife and the liberation of concentration camp Dachau, in which he participated during the war. And this is only the premise to a film that knows quite a number of expected plot-twists and -turns.
‘Shutter Island’ is set in the fifties and obviously references the B-thrillers of the fourties and fifties that came to be known, and got popular in retrospect, as film noirs. However, it never becomes certain if Scorsese is giving us a reenactment, a tribute or a parody. And that is a major weakness for the film. The general comment would be that it is too much. Too much reference, too much visual excess, too many ominous ship horns on the soundtrack, too many plot twists. The balance hangs to parody, but there is not a single really funny or relieving moment in the film.
Which does not mean that it is bad. There is a lot that is good about ‘Shutter Island’. DiCaprio, to start of with, is good again. Max von Sydow and Mark Ruffalo are flawless in their supporting roles. The cinematography and occasional special effects in the first, dream-like, half of the film are stunning and the soundtrack is outrageous.
On the downside there is that outrageous soundtrack. And Ben Kingsley, who talks far too much, especially considering his first act remark to DiCaprio that ‘they already have talked’. However, Sir Ben is not the one to really criticize here. It is the script, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) that lingers on unnecessary in an overly explainative last act. The film would have been much, much better if we, and with us Teddy Daniels, would have gotten to know only the essential parts of the truth. Now, all the pieces are made to fit together, supported by an unnecessary and emotionally ineffective flashback, and leading up to a climax that is annoyingly anti-climactic. Here the makers could have learned something from the finale of ‘A Serious Man’.
Which does not mean that ‘Shutter Island’ is bad. But it is one of the weak specimens in the carreers of both DiCaprio and Scorsese, the man who once gave us such jewels in cinema history as ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’. But if your admission ticket goes to either ‘Shutter Island’ or the pointless nonsense that is ‘From Paris with Love’, well… I need not say more. ‘Shutter Island’ is actually really enjoyable stuff. Unfortunately it is not much more than that.
And Leonardo DiCaprio? Poor him, he is again the second best thing in this film. This time it is, after all, the cinematography that wins the day.