This is a tough film for me to NOT give 5 out of 5 stars. You see, Martin Scorsese is widely regarded as one of film history’s preeminent filmmakers. When anyone asks me to list my top 5 directors, Scorsese’s name comes to mind in a nanosecond. So it is with great difficulty to admit that I did not find the eagerly anticipated Shutter Island to be flawless. Its brilliant and solid film work that gets too weighted down by the director’s overindulgence and unrestraint.

Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a Boston-based U.S. Marshal who is sent out to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous patient/inmate from a mental institution for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. Accompanying DiCaprio in his investigation is his partner, who is played by Mark Ruffalo. On the island, the two marshals begin their investigation by interviewing the asylum’s director, who is brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley. As the investigation progresses, you discover the investigation goes far beyond the whereabouts of a missing inmate and you begin to wonder what is real and what isn’t. If you’re looking for a mindfuck of a movie, this is it.

Scorsese is no stranger to thrillers. Although he is better known these days for his crime films, he gave us one of his best works in 1991 with Cape Fear, starring Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. Before that, Scorsese made what some critics consider to be his best work in Taxi Driver, which also starred De Niro. These films gave us frightening and effective psychopaths whose characters forever entered America’s collective consciousness. Shutter Island explores a much different side of the criminally insane. It doesn’t paint a black and white portrayal of psychosis where you have a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist. Here, Scorsese handles the issues of mental disease in a much gentler and sensitive manner without sacrificing the thriller aspects of the movie.

When you’re someone like Martin Scorsese, assembling a fine cast of actors is not much of a problem and the director has gathered an impressive group of performers for Shutter Island. This movie marks Leonardo DiCaprio’s 4th collaboration with the director. Together they have created a vastly diverse collection of films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) that has elevated DiCaprio’s stature in Hollywood and turned him into one of the industry’s most skilled actors. Here, DiCaprio does solid, great work as the U.S. marshal sent to investigate a disappearance. Although he doesn’t stretch his talents to the extent I saw him do in films like The Aviator, he gives us a wide range of a performance that counts among his best roles of his career.

The actor who most impresses in Shutter Island is none other than arguably the best actor working in Hollywood, Ben Kingsley. Teaming him up with Scorsese is any film geek’s wet dream and Scorsese makes him absolutely shine in his role as the asylum’s psychiatrist. Dressed in his Freudian shrink suit, Kingsley is the voice of calm, firm control in a world of madness. Every syllable, every gesture, and every look is calculated and meaningful and it was a treat to watch the master actor operating on the stage of a master director.

It would be a huge disservice to not mention the compelling work of the remainder of the cast. Max von Sydow gives a menacing performance as one of the island’s other psychiatrists who DiCaprio suspects of being a former Nazi experimenter. Ruffalo as DiCaprio’s partner delivers an understated piece of acting that is one of the best things I have ever seen him do. Finally, special mention must be made of the small but mesmerizing performances given by Patricia Clarkson and Jack Earle Haley. Both made me wish they had bigger roles in the film and really added to the richness of the film’s many fine qualities.

Finally, not enough could be said of Robert Richardson’s SUPERB and GENIUS cinematography. Yesterday I reviewed U-Turn, which is another one of his films (NOTE: Richardson is Oliver Stone’s longtime and regular DP) and another fine showcase of his talents. Had Shutter Island been released in 2009 as it originally was supposed to have come out, it would undoubtedly been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. This is perhaps Richardson’s best work and that is saying a lot given his impressive filmography. Every frame of this film is pause-worthy and practically brought tears to my eyes in how beautiful it was. I could have literally muted the movie and been simply content to just watch the images float across the screen. If there is 1 single reason to watch Shutter Island, it is to watch your eyes get raped by Robert Richardson’s talents.

After heaping such high praise upon this movie, what could possibly be wrong with it you might ask? Its difficult to discuss the movie’s flaws without entering spoiler territory so its best to first warn you that the following segment of my review is full of SPOILERS. Ok, with that out of the way, lets begin. Although I’m sure most people who even remotely enjoy this film will refer to the movie’s big twist ending as one reason why they liked it, I felt the ending was a bit too predictable. The plot gets to a point in the film where you begin doubting DiCaprio’s sanity. As soon as he started spouting off about the strange shit involving HUAC and secret military experiments funded by the U.S. government being conducted on the island, I suspected that DiCaprio was a little insane in the membrane. Being very familiar with Scorsese’s films and the themes he likes to explore, I knew this movie would not be about secret government conspiracies. I began to figure that everything going on in this movie was probably an insane delusion in DiCaprio’s head. Once we reach the end and find out this is precisely the case, I felt a little disappointed that Scorsese didn’t give me something more. As a stand-alone idea, a film about a man’s insane delusion is not a bad idea by any means. However, because Scorsese intended to give his audience a surprise twist by revealing that DiCaprio had fabricated everything in his head, I was disappointed that I was able to figure this out before the reveal. I wanted to be surprised and I wasn’t.

One flaw in Shutter Island that really surprised me was its overuse of exposition. Any basic screenwriting course will tell you that one of the biggest blunders a screenwriter can make is have his story be TOLD by the characters rather than it be SHOWN by the characters. This is commonly called the “talking heads” syndrome and its basically when characters stand around onscreen and talk about whats going on. Being a visual medium, film should show its audience the progression of its narrative rather than make its characters explain it to the audience. Shutter Island surprisingly makes this mistake and I say surprisingly because of all people, I would never have expected Martin Scorsese to succumb to such lazy storytelling. Thankfully, the strong cast and dialogue mostly offset the otherwise snails pace of the conversation scenes.

Shutter Island reminded me a little of A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard’s (undeserving) Oscar-winning film about the effects of mental illness. That was a film I did not quite care for and I think its because Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness has been, in my opinion, a futile exercise. Trying to depict the world of an insane person runs the risk of turning the film into an abstract/”artsy” exercise, which in turn risks alienating the audience by removing them from the world of reality. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one film that pulled this off and that was The Shining, which was not a critical nor commercial success upon its theatrical release. I didn’t enjoy A Beautiful Mind because I didn’t want to constantly wonder whether what I was seeing was real or not real and I found myself having the same issue with Shutter Island. DiCaprio’s delusions were beautifully rendered to be sure, but I grew tired of trying to piece together the underlying truth.

With everything I have said about this film, Shutter Island is still worth every dollar to see on the big screen. I was just discussing with a friend last night that had anyone else been the director of this film, it would be lauded as an impressive artistic achievement, but we’re talkin’ Scorsese here and he’s set quite a high bar for himself. As one critic has written of Shutter Island, even a mixed bag from Martin Scorsese is still better than most other filmmakers’ best efforts. However, even my watching this film in my favorite movie theater in the world (the California Theater in Berkeley where many fond cinematic memories have taken place) could not inch Shutter Island from a good film to a great film. Its clear Scorsese had a lot of fun making this film. He pulled every trick out of his bag to pay homage to the film noir thriller and he mostly succeeds.

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