Future biographers of Martin Scorsese will find themselves reckoning with two distinct periods in his filmmaking: the De Niro epoch and the DiCaprio era. In the first 25 years of Scorsese’s career, it seemed like every major film he made was required to star Robert De Niro, from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Raging Bull and Goodfellas, to The King of Comedy and Casino. But now it’s been over a decade since they last worked together. Ever since 2002’s Gangs of New York, the role of Scorsese’s muse has fallen exclusively to Leo.
As far as Oscars and box-office dollars are concerned, it’s been a fruitful collaboration for Scorsese. But artistically I find it baffling. Leonardo DiCaprio is a solid enough actor who’s never quite transcended his child-thespian roots. He looks persistently younger than his age (he’s 36, remarkably), and he’s best in roles that demand a mix of charisma, immaturity, and faint untrustworthiness. That worked well enough when he played Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but otherwise Scorsese has cast him in parts that demand an old-school kind of machismo on the surface and roiling waters underneath: an Irish gang leader from pre–Civil War Manhattan, an undercover Boston cop, and, in their latest collaboration, Shutter Island, a tough-talking federal marshal in the 1950s. In each case, DiCaprio has labored unsuccessfully to deliver something authentic; he’s struck poses, but hasn’t seemed real.
As Shutter Island’s Teddy Daniels, the U.S. marshal dispatched (along with his partner, played by Mark Ruffalo) to investigate a disappearance at a storm-swept asylum for the criminally insane, Leo swallows his golden smile, growls his dialogue, clenches his features, and leaves his still-boyish cheeks unshaven. His character, like the movie as a whole, is self-consciously over-the-top. He’s a temperamental lawman plagued by dreams of his dead wife and nightmares about the death camps he liberated in World War II — as mentally unstable, perhaps, as anyone on the island full of lunatics where he’s conducting his investigation. But for all his grimacing and posturing, DiCaprio still can’t help projecting the air of a slightly gone-to-seed teen idol, with the quiver of a double chin beneath his stubble.
It’s too bad, because the movie itself is an interesting experiment. For most of its running time, you’ll wonder why Scorsese has yoked his genius to so many hoary B-movie clichés. Never has so much artistry been lavished on looming cliffs, overgrown cemeteries, dripping cellblocks, and things that go “bump!” in the middle of a night-time investigation. Every lunatic on Shutter Island is an archetype of madness; every sinister guard echoes some earlier cinematic heavy; every red herring and sudden reversal evokes the gothic murder mysteries of yore. The score pounds; the storm pounds harder. All that’s missing is Vincent Price, materializing from the shadows with a smile of welcome.
Instead, we get Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the courtly, creepy doctors in charge of the asylum. Their patient count has dropped by one since Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a child-murdering mother from the Berkshires, disappeared from her cell without a trace, leaving even her shoes behind. But the doctors are strangely unhelpful to the fresh-off-the-boat investigators, refusing to open the asylum’s records, declaring certain wards off-limits, and generally acting like people with an awful lot to hide.
What they’re hiding may involve Nazi science, mind-control experiments, and perhaps even Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist responsible (or was he?) for the fire that killed Daniels’s wife. Played by Michelle Williams, the luminous Mrs. Daniels shows up in a series of David Lynch–style dream sequences that grow more intense the longer DiCaprio’s marshal spends on Shutter Island. Is he losing his grip on reality? Or is he being gradually drugged into insanity by the asylum’s keepers, to prevent him from ferreting out the truth? What’s in the cigarettes they hand him, or the aspirin they provide for his headaches? Will he end up locked away in the dreaded Ward C, diagnosed with some form of madness and subjected to the same sinister experiments that Rachel Solando, perhaps, was trying to escape?
When the answers to all these questions finally arrive, in a twist ending that reframes everything the audience has seen, you’ll understand exactly what Scorsese has been up to with all this lurid melodrama, the hackneyed plot devices, and the precise reworkings of B-movie clichés. The film reviewer’s code forbids me from giving away the exact whys and wherefores of this reversal, but I can promise that the destination at least explains the peculiar journey that Shutter Island takes its viewers on.
Whether it justifies this journey, though, is another question entirely. The answer is no, I think, but I’m also half-persuaded that it might have been yes with a different actor in the leading role. This is a movie that requires audiences to care, and care deeply, about what’s happening in poor beleaguered Teddy Daniels’s brain. His psychological problems are the film, in a way — but Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t the man to make you believe in them, or him.
To pull off Shutter Island’s peculiar conceit, Scorsese needed an actor capable of convincing audiences that his own suffering is deeply, deeply real, even if most of the mysteries around him are head-fakes and misdirections. What he needed, perhaps, was a young Robert De Niro.