The Magazine

Thrills and Kills

One hundred thirty-eight minutes of guaranteed suspense.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Shutter Island

Thrills and Kills

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Shutter Island is a two-hour-and-18-minute thriller based on a 400-page, 150,000-word novel by Dennis Lehane. Usually in such circumstances, the movie proves to be a terrific disappointment, and for good reason; the adaptation almost always simplifies the plot and action in a way that drains the material of the qualities that made the book worth adapting in the first place.

That is not the case with Shutter Island, which is in every particular a vast improvement on its source. Martin Scorsese’s movie manages to be extremely faithful to the original even as it transcends the desperate silliness of Lehane’s twisty but ultimately ludicrous plot. The movie is a hit, and deservedly so, in spite of some thuddingly unimaginative reviewers who seem unable to grasp the nature of the game Scorsese is playing here.

He and his screenwriter, Laeta Kalogridis, establish an off-kilter, confusing mood that echoes and mirrors the crisis besetting its protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. Teddy is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a jangly performance that is so spectacularly good and controlled it ought to end forever the controversy over whether he is more than just a pretty boy.

Teddy is a fascinating character, a World War II veteran who was present at the liberation of Dachau and is haunted by the memory of a beloved dead wife (Michelle Williams, who appears briefly and to shattering effect). The year is 1954. He has come to the title island, the home to a hospital for the criminally insane that sits in the midst of Boston Harbor, because a violent patient who murdered her own children has disappeared from her cell. And he finds himself mystified and worried by the strange refusal of the hospital’s staff to cooperate with his investigation.

Shutter Island is an “everything is not as it seems” thriller, which is a very difficult thing to pull off because the genre relies on conspiracies and coincidences and character quirks that always threaten to turn ridiculous. That is exactly what happened recently to Edge of Darkness, another Massachusetts-based thriller in which Mel Gibson plays a Boston cop whose daughter is killed in an attempt to assassinate him—only it turns out she was the target of the assassin, not he. Gibson is terrific in it, and the movie is well shot; but by the time men in a black Range Rover decide to try to kill Mel by putting radioactive nuclear material in his milk—no, I’m not kidding—we’ve checked out. (Maybe they should have tried kosher wine.)

Indeed, it’s so hard to pull off, Lehane’s original novel doesn’t manage it. That is due to the book’s excessive length; it takes so long to read Shutter Island that one’s ability to suspend disbelief is taken to the breaking point and beyond. Kalogridis (who was, I am astonished to report, a screenwriter of Oliver Stone’s horrifically bad Alexander and James Cameron’s ghostwriter on Avatar) hits every plot and character point in 138 minutes. And Scorsese’s histrionic visual approach conveys the sense of the story much more effectively than Lehane’s indifferent prose.

The movie, though, wouldn’t work at all were it not for DiCaprio’s extraordinary performance, which (unlike the plot) only seems to get better the more you think about it. It’s alternately showy and subtle, working on several levels at once. Shutter Island begins with DiCaprio already set at high pitch: The first line is DiCaprio looking in the mirror and saying “pull yourself together, Teddy” as he copes with a bout of seasickness on a Boston Harbor ferry in roiling waters that portend a huge storm. He has to maintain the same level of intensity throughout the movie’s running time without driving us crazy, and he pulls it off. 

I had little interest in seeing Shutter Island because I found the book such a chore. And yet, even with advance knowledge of twists and turns I thought implausible, the movie compelled my attention from the very first, and then somehow began surprising me. Every few minutes there is a golden nugget of an actorly turn—especially Jackie Earle Haley as a mental patient who is completely misunderstood and the great Max von Sydow as a psychiatrist enjoying moments of enigmatic private amusement 53 years after playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal.

Martin Scorsese has made a melodrama that doesn’t actually pretend to be anything other than it is; indeed, one of the plot tricks is how the movie plays on our expectation that it has grand political and ideological ambitions. The novel has the same reversal, but it doesn’t work nearly as well—maybe because certain types of political clichés are more familiar in Hollywood movies than they are in books and so it comes as a more bracing treat when they are used on screen not to enlighten us but rather to misdirect us. There’s nothing in the least profound or meaningful about Shutter Island, and in the final analysis, that may be the greatest treat of all.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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