Feb. 19 2010 12:00 AM

Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is stunningly stylish, but it's tripped up by its own trickery


“Seen any walking nightmares lately, marshal?” a woman asks
deputy marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) late in director Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. She’s a psychiatrist,
although she might as well be a psychic: Daniels has been prowling around the
creepy corridors of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and he’s
witnessed enough scary sights to fill a month’s worth of bad dreams.

It’s 1954, and psychiatric hospitals are not far from the
dismal days of ice baths, crudely administered electro-shock treatments and
other atrocities. In Ashecliffe’s Ward C, patients are still stripped naked and
locked up in filthy, dark cells where their bodies rot and their minds
deteriorate. The conditions in Ashecliffe’s other buildings are slightly
better, although nobody’s going to mistake it for a country-club prison.

Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel, “Shutter” is a freak
show with artsy pretensions. Scorsese uses the 1950s setting to
pay tribute to some of that era’s most memorable movies: When Daniels clings to
the face of a rocky cliff overlooking the raging Massachusetts Bay waters,
Scorsese works in appreciative nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”
and “Vertigo” in the space of one minute. Robert Richardson’s luscious
cinematography — even the most sordid images are stunningly lit and perfectly
framed — recalls the creamy Technicolor soap operas of director Douglas Sirk
(“Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life”). Scorsese also finds the ugly
undercurrents in some of the seemingly benign artifacts of the day; Kay Starr’s
tear-stained ballad “Wheel of Fortune” is re-engineered into an unnervingly wobbly melody, as Scorsese distorts the sound of Starr belting out “spinning,
spinning, spinning” and “turning, turning, turning” into a rush of woozy warbling.

Ultimately however, “Shutter” is shackled by its almost
absurdly tricky plot, which is heavy with red herrings, flamboyant flashback
scenes and an unfortunate abundance of dream sequences and hallucinations.
Daniels is haunted by visions of his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams),
who perished in an apartment fire. He sees her solemnly moving through their
old living room as ashes rain down from the ceiling; when Dolores turns around,
Daniels can see her back is being eaten away by flames.

Dolores’ death hangs over Daniels’ head as he and his
partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), investigate the disappearance of one of
Ashecliffe’s female patients. The doctors who oversee Ashecliffe (Ben Kingsley
and Max von Sydow) offer little help, which leads Daniels to suspect they have
something to hide. Further poking around reveals curious connections to the
House Un-American Activities Committee, the Dachau concentration camp and
rumors of sadistic experiments being conducted in a lighthouse.

But the Nazis and the Red Scare turn out to be nothing more
than topical window dressing as “Shutter” steadily degenerates into a standard Old Dark
House yarn, complete with creaky-squeaky doors, blackouts, a vicious hurricane, scads of elaborately ugly makeup, and an assortment of gnarled hands grasping for Daniels as he makes his way through the
cellblock of Ward C.

Although Scorsese manages to squeeze a few scares out of
this well-worn material, there aren’t enough shocks to hold the interest as
“Shutter” chugs along for almost two and a half dreary hours. Cameo appearances
from such dynamos as Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley
are initially exciting, until the realization sets in that they’re only
dropping by to reiterate what any half-alert viewer already knows: On Shutter
Island, there’s no one you can trust and nothing is what it seems to be. When
it comes to storytelling, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis error on
the side of excess, telling too much and overexplaining what could have easily
been left to the imagination.

With the exception of DiCaprio, the actors seem to function
primarily as props or devices to keep the plot percolating. DiCaprio, looking
like Edward G. Robinson’s baby brother in his fedora and gaudy Hawaiian
necktie, is better at projecting dogged determination than he is at handling
Daniels’ Boston accent (“doctor” sometimes turns into “dork-tuh”). His
strongest moments come in his scenes with the criminally underused Williams; it
would be great to see them get an opportunity to work together with Scorsese in
a movie with more substance and less smoke-and-mirrors gimmickry.