At the beginning I was happy to be in the hands of a master, with his sumptuous camera moves and gorgeous framing, the astonishingly rich photography of Robert Richardson, the perfect production design of Dante Ferretti, and the music, very cinematic and strange, that turns out to be a Kubrickian collection of greatest hits by modern composers like Ligeti, Penderecki, John Cage, John Adams (music supervision by Robbie Robertson, no less). Plus an impressive supporting cast (Ben Kingsley, the magnificent Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley). Yet you sit there for almost three hours amazed at the quality of everything, except nothing seems to work.
My first beef is with Leonardo DiCaprio. He is a good actor who never shirks away from total commitment. He has some very good moments (others, a little strained). Problem is, do I believe he is a federal marshall? No. Why? I'm not really sure. Maybe because of his baby face. Maybe because he lacks a certain gravitas. Put Matt Damon in the role, and I would have no problem believing him as a former soldier and a federal marshall. I think DiCaprio lacks weight. He looks like he just emerged from a Starbucks in Santa Monica.
The second and bigger issue is the screenplay, which doesn't make any sense.
For a while I thought it was interesting that the US government was running a secret program in an asylum for the criminally insane. I thought the resonance with our government today torturing people was timely, and even more timely the idea that the powers that be are intent on driving citizens crazy (Dick Cheney is a specialist on making everyone feel like we're all insane and living in a parallel universe). However, as others have pointed out, Shutter Island is full of plot threads that don't lead anywhere.
Basically, for the first two acts, you think you are watching a movie about a heroic man, and then the third act turns into a sinister version of Alice down the rabbit hole, which would be very cool if these two things evolved gracefully or coherently. Yet by the tragic end, the audience was chuckling in disbelief at the shoddiness of the resolution, and feeling that our collective chain was yanked. The movie is at turns cheesy, heavy handed and clumsy. There is one incredible lateral dolly shot of American soldiers executing Nazis, that reminded me of Kubrick. There are wonderful little set pieces, but then there are gaudy, cheesy, scenes as well. Scorsese has never been dainty; somehow in his nimble hands, this tendency for overemphasis can be extremely exciting; his movies have tremendous life and energy. But this one feels strained and stilted, like it needs to go outside of its own cinematic head and get a breath of fresh air. All of late Scorsese, except for The Departed, suffers from the same overwrought symptoms. And one worries over the extreme attention to technical and historical cinematic detail at the expense of making sure all the actors are acting in the same movie, same period and same island. The otherwise always reliable actors are left to their own devices, stranded in Shutter Island. My adored Mark Ruffalo is wasted and miscast. And except for Patricia Clarkson, who is never, ever wrong, and a couple of excellent supporting actresses, the main actresses, Emily Mortimer and Michelle Williams seem to be grasping at straws. Some actors rise to the occasion, like Max Von Sydow and Jackie Earle Haley, who is a thing of wonder. Ben Kingsley is good but strangely mannered, and it all feels strangely discombobulated. I've read that Scorsese was deliberately imitating the style of certain paranoid B-movies from the Fifties, but in this case the cheesiness is unaccompanied by either irony or a sense of humor, and the whole thing feels like the air was sucked out of it. Not at all like classic Scorsese.
Mental illness and insane asylums are great for drama but they are extremely hard to pull off. In loony bin movies, one always gets the feeling that they're not getting it right, whatever right is (you know the clichés. There is always someone screaming in the aisles). The idea of someone sane purposefully branded as crazy has been explored in film before, recently most notably by the great One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and I would say not badly by Girl, Interrupted. But if you are going to go down the route of madness, mind games, and mental distorsion, there has to be far more menace, far more terror and far more rigor.