Within the first few seconds of Martin Scorsese's new psychological thriller-diller, "Shutter Island," Leonardo DiCaprio is vomiting into a steel toilet in a basement filled with chains and shackles. Beads of sweat protrude from his forehead -- with their own beads of sweat protruding from their foreheads -- and the modernist wall-of-sound score assembled by Robbie Robertson swells and coruscates, as if in vomitous sympathy. But seriously, that opening image tells you almost all you need to know about the character, his mental situation and the film he's in.
Scorsese is not a director who does things by halves, and his latest foray into genre film -- in this case, a 1950s period piece adapted from Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane's bestseller -- is no exception. At first, it may seem as if Scorsese is venturing into formulaic cop-movie territory better left to Clint Eastwood, or following some obscurantist film-buff desire to imitate Howard Hawks by making movies in every imaginable genre and style. But there is method to the madness of "Shutter Island," or at least method along with the madness. From its menacing, neo-Gothic mental hospital on a Boston Harbor island to the Class 5 hurricane that traps all its characters there to the tormented psychology of its damaged hero -- hey, exactly who are the crazy people here? Hmm! -- this movie is purposefully and self-consciously overwrought.
By an odd quirk of fate, "Shutter Island," a big-budget spectacle from the most celebrated living director, reaches us on the same day as "The Ghost Writer," made by a director who is nearly as famous for all the wrong reasons. Although they tell very different stories, they are strikingly similar films: adaptations of pop literature that turn on major third-act revelations, stories whose mysterious protagonists become trapped in situations that are not what they appear to be. After you've seen both of them we can talk about this in more detail, but I think we need to switch on the way-back machine and convince Scorsese and Roman Polanski to swap projects, roughly three years ago. Seriously. This is a flawed, baroque, vastly overcooked Scorsese film, which will intrigue some viewers and infuriate many others; it would be beautifully suited to Polanski's coldhearted economy.
OK, so the barfing, sweaty DiCaprio in the clanking cellar of that ship is playing federal marshal Teddy Daniels, who's on his way to the high-security loony bin on Shutter Island to investigate the escape of a violent inmate named Rachel Solando. As if penalizing himself for all those extended, almost geographical tracking shots over the years, Scorsese locks himself (and cinematographer Robert Richardson) into some of the tightest spots imaginable. As Teddy and his new partner, a subdued Seattle transplant named Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), soon establish, Rachel's escape seems impossible, or even fictional. Somehow she got out of a locked cell, past a lunchroom full of male orderlies and out into the freezing, drenched wilderness of the island, with no shoes or foul-weather gear.
Everybody Teddy and Chuck interview sort of mumbles and rolls their eyes, and the hospital authorities are worse than no help at all. Pipe-smoking head shrink Dr. Cawley (unctuously played by Ben Kingsley) talks about his new talk-based therapies for severe mental illness and his reluctance to rely on lobotomies and/or Thorazine, but resists opening the hospital's patient files. As a World War II veteran who speaks German and witnessed the liberation of Dachau, Teddy harbors severe doubts about Cawley's urbane colleague, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow). Teddy tells Chuck he's done some research into the hospital's history -- and believes that Rachel isn't the only patient who has disappeared.
As Lehane's readers will already know, Teddy's search for Rachel is only the tip of a very long tail connected to a surprisingly large mouse. Without giving much away, I can tell you that Scorsese has his own way of suggesting this. As the compressed and claustrophobic waking world of "Shutter Island" begins to shut down into film-noir conventions -- fruitless searches, driving rainstorms, riddle-ridden conversations, troubling but fragmentary clues -- Teddy's inward night-world begins to explode. Like any noir hero worth his salt, Teddy has a dead wife (Michelle Williams) in his past and a dark secret in his heart. In a series of pyrotechnic and hallucinatory dream sequences that reunite Teddy and his lost love, Scorsese begins to knit the pieces of that past together.
Always a compulsive film buff, Scorsese has elaborated in interviews on some of the tricky period dramas he's halfway channeling in "Shutter Island," including classics like Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" (which he reportedly screened for DiCaprio) and Otto Preminger's "Laura," along with claustrophobic horror films like "The Haunting" and "The Innocents." Those are all terrific movies, but I suspect that Martin Scorsese could not have made any of them. How is it possible that after all these years Scorsese does not understand that he is a sound-and-vision director -- one of the greatest shot-makers and most daring montage artists in the medium's history -- but not much of a plot guy? How important is the story in "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas"? Or in "Kundun" or "The Age of Innocence," for that matter?
Maybe it's admirable, on a personal level, for Scorsese to pursue something he's not that good at. But that's a little like saying that I should try writing romance novels. Hey, it's just words on the screen, right? I do that already! He seems to have painted himself into a late-career pattern of making leaden, inflated genre pictures, all of them featuring DiCaprio in his unkempt, boiled-owl mode and all of them loaded with internal contradictions and at war with themselves.
"Shutter Island" would be a difficult and delicate movie to manage under the best of circumstances. Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis need to keep the audience engaged by the movie's official mystery -- Teddy's investigation of the hospital and its secrets -- while slowly revealing other, deeper mysteries that lie within the characters and story. But from the instant Teddy arrives on the island, plagued with nausea and jitters, and announces (as in the much-ridiculed trailer) that he and Chuck are "dooly appointed fedrul mahh-shals," far too much of "Shutter Island" plays like lugubrious comedy.
By the time Ruffalo's character explains the whole hospital-conspiracy plot, in an expository monologue delivered by flashlight in a half-ruined cemetery crypt (shortly before he disappears), I felt myself growing bored and frustrated with "Shutter Island" -- and felt as if Scorsese was not far behind me. I just sat there hoping we'd get another dream sequence with Michelle Williams bursting into flames. Then missing murderess Rachel Solando is rediscovered, but is played first by Emily Mortimer, and then by Patricia Clarkson. Wait, what? Scorsese is pushing, I guess, for something that combines a '40s horror-thriller with a contemporary psychological tragedy. What he ends up with is more like a Hardy Boys mystery directed by David Lynch.