Photo by Andrew Cooper. Copyright © Paramount Pictures, 2010.
Review by Ryan Wilson

Leonardo DiCaprio recently gave an interview saying that he would have loved to star in Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver, presumably as Robert De Niro's disturbed character Travis Bickle. The irony here is that in the last ten years DiCaprio has become to Scorsese what De Niro was to Scorsese in the 1970s and 1990s: a one-size-fits-all actor, versatile enough to get the lead in any of Scorsese's films.

DiCaprio's rub is that Scorsese isn’t exactly making the same violent masterpieces he used to. In each of DiCaprio's collaborations with Scorsese, the great director has demonstrated a restraint and a control that wasn't present in his early work with De Niro. Not that DiCaprio is complaining. He's played lead in the epic Gangs of New York, the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, and finally The Departed, which won best picture in 2007.

DiCaprio and Scorsese's latest team-up is Shutter Island, probably the least ambitious project the two have shared, at least on the surface. It tells the story of federal marshal Teddy Daniels, played by DiCaprio, who investigates an island institution for the criminally insane after a patient presumably disappears. There's a lot of presuming in the story. The truth of what's actually happening is tossed about with fresh plot twists in the tradition of a good pulp detective tale.

Scorsese purists may claim that something so mainstream is beneath the great director. Others looking for a strictly psychological thriller may find the art house subtext distracting. And those seeking a traditional mystery may find more than they're looking for.

Shutter Island is almost more about its era than its characters. Set in 1954, the island contains so many usual suspects of the time: from mentally scarred veterans returning from World War II to housewives who break from the strain of normality. We also have tweedy hospital psychologists anxious to try new methods on patients and sinister looking doctors who might be Nazi war criminals. The island of the title is really a metaphor for where we are in history, adrift somewhere between postwar trauma and Cold War paranoia.

Scorsese expertly arranges these chess pieces, challenging his audience to keep up as the game changes on his board. What begins as an engaging detective case for Teddy turns into a Kafkaesque conspiracy concerning illegal experiments funded by the government. The tale shifts again late in the third act, causing us to question everything, even Teddy's very reality.

Some audiences may grow weary of these plot twists. At times the film seems to redefine itself so completely that it contains at least three different tones for what could be three separate movies. But I appreciated the unevenness of the plot, if only because I like to be surprised. At first I was unhappy with the heavy use of flashback and backstory, but as Scorsese's ultimate vision comes into focus what seem like indulgences turn into clues. The result is the sort of movie that demands to be watched at least twice, once to seek the answers and once again for a reinterpretation that the answers provide.

My only real criticism comes in the film's last five minutes. By this time, we've been twisted around so thoroughly concerning what's actually happening that one might expect a final twist. Instead, the film slows to a crawl. It almost feels as if everyone's too tired for a final push. The ending feels flat. But like any detective story, the fun has to end at some point.

It's also a bit difficult to buy DiCaprio as the supposed veteran federal marshal, much as it was difficult to believe him as a jaded suburbanite in last year's Revolutionary Road. DiCaprio is thirty-five years old now, but he still has a boyish quality about him. His youthful appearance fit well in more spritely roles, like the young informant in The Departed or the priest's avenging son in Gangs of New York. It even worked well as a young Howard Hughes with prodigious energy in The Aviator. He just looks at bit soft for the hard film noir role needed in Shutter Island. DiCaprio is simply too pretty to ever play a character like Travis Bickle.

Shutter Island isn't even close to Scorsese's best work. That honor will probably always belong to Raging Bull. Critics call that film Scorsese's Citizen Kane. It's interesting to compare Scorsese to director Orson Wells. Both directors like to experiment with genre and both gravitate to film noir. Shutter Island reminds me of Wells's The Lady from Shanghai. Both films have vulnerable protagonists undone by their own psychology and their trust in the wrong woman. Both films also belong to their directors. Neither is a perfect movie, but each is an example of a filmmaker stretching a usually tight genre to its limit.

I'm hoping that Scorsese will continue to challenge himself and his audience, even if the final product feels like an experiment. With De Niro's acting Scorsese basically invented his own genre of hyper-violence, but with DiCaprio, he seems to have found an actor willing to take just as many risks within a traditional genre.

It's basically impossible for Scorsese to make a dull picture, and as a disturbing, ever-changing puzzle, Shutter Island is anything but dull.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. Produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010