The first time I read the Dennis Lehane novel this film was based on, I was absolutely riveted by it — UNTIL about halfway through, when I figured out how it was going to end and realized how much that ending was going to irritate me. I still enjoyed it, for the most part, but as soon as I was done, I chucked my copy into a box in the garage and forgot all about it.
Last spring, though, my husband was on a serious 12-Step-Program-worthy Lehane binge and when he got this one out, read it, and then raved about it, I decided to give it a second try. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it far more the second time around. I think knowing how it was going to turn out freed me from having to care about the plot (which sounds weird, I know, but sometimes the story isn’t the best part of a book) and instead let me focus on the setting, mood, and characters. Lehane is a great storyteller, but he’s even better at setting a scene: the moment that ferry docks at Shutter Island, you dock with it, and you don’t get back off until you turn the last page and put it down.
It’s for that reason I was excited to see this film, directed by Martin Scorsese (who I still want to punch in the face because of THIS, by the way, but whatever), even though I already knew the story. Though many people seem to think Scorsese’s last attempt at a scary movie was a major bust, I actually liked Cape Fear and found it effectively creepy. So, I was curious to see what Marty could do with this tale. It seemed it would be pretty hard to screw it up too badly, anyway, seeing as how it’s set in a mental institution for the criminally insane — as far as scary movie settings go, you can’t get much easier than that when it comes to keepin’ it surreal.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this film overall (though it should be noted that my husband really liked it and has way better — or at least more “normal” — taste in movies than I do). As it turns out, it IS possible to screw up the creepiness of a movie set in an insane asylum. You do it by loading your flick up with the same tired “scary movie” techniques we’ve seen a million times in a million different flicks. The story may still be intriguing (hard for me to be objective about that because I was already so familiar with it), but I felt like Scorsese focused too much on that story and not enough on the rest of it. Instead of working hard to set an effective mood, he just threw in lots of freaky-lookin’ crazy people (Jackie Earle Haley wins the prize, as per usual), framed every shot in spoooooky shadows, and scored it way too heavily in obnoxiously unscary “Hey, listen to this music’s crescendooooo…BOO!” I got the distinct impression he figured the “twist” would carry the film, and already knowing the twist myself meant I needed the movie to grab me in some other way.
That said, while the scenes on the actual island — the home of the aforementioned asylum where U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Ruffal0) are sent to investigate a missing patient — were uninspired and uninspiring, I found the dream sequences, in which Daniels has flashbacks about his dead wife and his experiences as one of the liberators of Dachau during WWII, utterly striking. As flashbacks tend to do, Daniels’ start out without context (a shot of him standing in a room with tons of paper flying and flapping around, e.g.), adding more and more information in pieces, until the final horror we’ve been stomach-sinkingly anticipating is at last revealed to us. These sequences were, in my opinion, very artfully drawn and powerful. And DiCaprio’s acting in them was the same (though I confess I may have been a bit blinded by the glory of his masterful French inhale — I hate to describe any smoker as “sexy,” but sometimes it just can’t be helped, I’m sorry). It’s too bad Scorsese didn’t manage to sustain the mood and craft of these scenes throughout the rest of the film. If he had, I think this would’ve been a much more unique movie, and one that readers of the book might’ve been able to get more out of.
I think if you’ve never read the novel, your chances of liking this film are pretty good — I’d be curious to hear, in fact, from anyone who has seen the film and not read the book. Were you surprised by the ending? Did the setting/look of the film work for you? For me, though, it just lacked too much in the non-story realm. I didn’t find it terribly creative, thought it was at least thirty minutes too long, and, well, yeah. Bored, to be honest. By the end, just bored.
Then again, as was recently pointed out to me by a commenter on my review of Orphan, I’m a moron. So, you know, do with this information what you will.