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film review - Shutter Island

by Leonard Maltin
February 19, 2010 3:26 AM
8 Comments
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I approach every Martin Scorsese picture with the hope that it will be worthy of his reputation and extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker. Shutter Island marks the fourth time he has worked with Leonardo DiCaprio, who has matured year by year and benefited from the association. And, of course, Scorsese has assembled a gold-plated roster of collaborators for the project, including film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Sandy Powell…not to mention a cast including Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Max von Sydow. Any film involving these talents is automatically worth seeing, and cannot—

—be dismissed out of hand…but I have to call Shutter Island a major disappointment.

Laeta Kalogridis adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone made a successful transition to film. This time around, the Boston-area setting—a remote island off the coast—is so overtly creepy from the start that one wonders how much stranger it can possibly get. As it happens, the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the island, which is home to an asylum for the criminally insane, offers much sturm und drang but little enjoyment—except the pleasure of watching fine craftsmen at work (on both sides of the camera). The acting is uniformly fine, and the look of the film is rich and textured, although the use of CGI seems heavy-handed at times.

Shutter Island is difficult to discuss without giving away the “big reveal,” a twist so far-reaching it will likely polarize viewers, some of whom may find it fascinating while others will simply be put off. I felt as if I’d been led through a labyrinthine shaggy-dog story only to arrive at a meaningless punchline.

Shutter Island deals with nature of insanity. Scorsese has never shied away from characters who indulge in extreme behavior, but in this case it’s not so much their actions as it is our point-of-view that takes center stage. Who is to judge what’s real and what isn’t, or what we can properly call crazy?

There’s plenty of fodder for discussion on that point once you’ve digested the movie, but being able to engage in debate doesn’t alleviate the oppressive experience of watching the film, or the feeling that there may not have been much of a point.


I love watching good actors at work. DiCaprio looks a bit out of his element in the ill-fitting clothes of a civil servant of the 1950s, but he does a good job. Michelle Williams is quite touching, seen in flashbacks as his late wife. Patricia Clarkson has just one scene, but it’s great, and Ben Kingsley approaches his character with such pinpoint precision that you can’t help but admire him. Everyone gets a chance to shine in this lengthy, layered narrative. But I’d much rather see these talented people in a story that engages me and gives me something to take away other than a feeling of frustration and unfulfilled expectations.

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8 Comments

  • sheila king | May 2, 2010 4:10 AMReply

    Maltin's review is one of several that I find far more disappointing than the film. In fact, I think there are a few critics who've reviewed this that will end up with egg on their faces after awhile. Yeah, I don't really think the big reveal is necessarily everything that audiences (or critics) actually think it is. In fact, I'd say that it's only one part of the big picture. Geez, amazing that critics are no better than anyone else when it comes to understanding what is going on in front of them. It's the journey that's important here, not the "twist". I have to say that Shutter Island is easily the best of the the Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborations for me, a small masterpiece if you will, and it'll certainly get more appreciation with time. Seen it three times already and it only gets better. A nicely layered film with lots of things going on, including wonderful performances -- DiCaprio is amazing amongst others, surely one of the most underrated actors of his time at least where some critics are concerned. Anyone who's disappointed is basically only scratching the surface of this one. Too bad.

  • Thomas A . King | March 31, 2010 10:09 AMReply

    what a completely accurate assessment of the film Leonard ( i had not read the book, but the denouement was picked out in the first 30 minutes) so the rest of the film was well made but became dull once you know where it's going, but you are right not to miss it because there are good things in it as well. i think this film was definately overpraised by many...

  • Judith North | March 5, 2010 8:52 AMReply

    I cannot believe this writer thought this movie was a disappointment. "Shutter Island" has to be one of the best movies I have ever seen. It was mesmerizing and I had no idea what was going on until the end. I felt like I was going crazy!! It was really good!

  • excession | March 2, 2010 4:40 AMReply

    An accurate review. Ben Kingsley 'stole' the film, he's so precise and (to overuse the term) brilliant.

    DiCaprio's face-screwing-up was over the top, but he wasn't unwatchable.

    The music in the film really went overboard, in my opinion, I suppose it was meant to, but it was painful at times.

  • Here In Flyover | February 23, 2010 9:31 AMReply

    I didn't go to the trouble to be disappointed by the film since I had already been disappointed by the novel.

    I assume the ending was the same as in the book and, if so, I would agree with you. The ending is like a Twilight Zone episode which is okay if you've only invested a half hour but after two hours you only feel cheated (imagine how I felt after spending MANY hours reading the book only to have it end the way it did).

    Love Scorcese, though.

  • Conor Curran | February 21, 2010 11:01 AMReply

    The films ending made me so mad. It was the exact same formula to many other twists I've seen. A major dissapointment for me too.

  • Jason | February 19, 2010 7:26 AMReply

    interestingly enough that's exactly what I thought of the novel: well written and clever but not very satisfying. I had some higher hopes for the film version but I guess this saved me $9

  • Santos | February 19, 2010 12:30 AMReply

    It appears that the new format for the site is now allowing you to finally include negative reviews.

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