A psychological thriller wasn't really what anyone expected from the acclaimed filmmaker, and although he sometimes feels lost in the unfamiliar genre, Scorsese lends a natural authenticity to the predictable plot and an earnestness to the would-be flat characters that salvages what might have been another "Wolfman" for something half-way memorable. And, hey, he won his Oscar. What better time to branch out?
The problem with Scorsese's experiment is ultimately that it feels safe, which is half a function of an unremarkable script, and half his unfamiliarity in directing horror. He approaches the genre in the way a famous baker might prepare a steak—He goes back to the recipe. Sure, he sears some effectives sequences, with palpable suspense and unsettling visuals, but it's missing those hand-written notes in the margins that bring you back for seconds.
His take on the story, while infinitely superior to, say, Joe Johnston's, still isn't quite ideal, and he seems to cling to the familiar whenever possible. He has a tendency to play up the noir element, with a fetishistic infatuation for the fifties period trench coats and fedoras that Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffolo sport, and for conversations punctuated by cigarettes, with a performance vocabulary that screams of the gangster flicks he's known for. That "Shutter Island" so clearly bears Scorsese's fingerprints is sort of the issue: a film about an insane asylum should be anything but predictable.
But the director's successes should not be undermined either, and when "Shutter Island" works, it really works. For instance, DiCaprio as Marshall Teddy Daniels suffers from a particularly distrubing recurring flashback (compelling perhaps because it wasn’t spoiled in the trailer) that features the young man as an Allied soldier liberating a Nazi concentration camp. The grotesque imagery of the war blends beautifully with the heady horror, and the cinematography is so sharp that one might wonder why Scorsese has never taken on a war film.
Scorsese also achieves some masterfully atmospheric scenes on the island itself. He has a way of making the omnipresent hurricane a character, and the way the rain beats against the windows and leaks in during the night is subtly threatening, ratcheting up the intensity that he skillfully pays off in exteriors. These great moments are hardly lonely, but even the director's eerie visuals and tight pacing falter by the final third of "Shutter Island's" overlong 138-minute running time.
The film becomes so suddenly talky and expository at its end that the whole thing almost capsizes under the weight. There is a twist, and you will likely understand it long before Scorsese is finished spoon-feeding you the solutions to each presumed non sequitur and tying up absolutely every loose end.
But even though Scorsese is feeling his way through the dark in directing a modern psychological horror film, watching him work is still enjoyable, and I stress that the vast majority of the problems with "Shutter Island" on the screen are problems with “Shutter Island” on the page. Scorsese elevates the mediocre script into an above-average thriller that, if nothing else, is better than what’s playing down the hall. Whether you enter as a fan of the genre or the director, "Shutter Island" is a palatable film. Just don't expect to be hungry for seconds.