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Ann Hornaday reviews 'Shutter Island' and 'Ajami'

Scorsese-esque: Ranin Carim and Shahir Kabaha star in "Ajami," a multicultural crime drama set in Israel.
Scorsese-esque: Ranin Carim and Shahir Kabaha star in "Ajami," a multicultural crime drama set in Israel. (Kino International)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

When it comes to Martin Scorsese and his leading men, it's all in the kisser.

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Consider Scorsese's longtime alpha go-to guy, Robert De Niro. Most likely, he's scowling. Whether he shape-shifted into the hopped up, volatile Johnny Boy of "Mean Streets," Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull" or Jimmy Conway in "Goodfellas," at some point, De Niro could be counted on to wrinkle his forehead, pull back those pursed lips and glare at the person across from him in contempt (or, more likely, murderous rage) and scowl as only he can do.

Now consider Scorsese's most recent alter ego, Leonardo DiCaprio. He scowls plenty throughout "Shutter Island," in which he plays a '50s-era U.S. marshal solving a mystery at a mental hospital on a spooky New England island. Indeed, there are moments when the moon-faced 35-year-old actor, fitted in a period-accurate trench coat and fedora, resembles a young Orson Welles -- without the booming baritone and corporeal heft.

But it's that very lack of physical presence that has proved so problematic for the Scorsese-DiCaprio collaboration since it began in 2002 with "Gangs of New York." Do you remember him in that film? Does anyone? Or do you immediately recall Daniel Day-Lewis as the gleefully homicidal Bill the Butcher, draped in the American flag or throwing knives at Cameron Diaz?

There also was no There there in DiCaprio's portrayal of Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," even though he was much lauded for that performance. His bland diffidence might have suited Hughes's eccentricities, but the characterization wasn't emphatic or indelible enough to be iconic. DiCaprio's most fruitful outing with Scorsese by far was in "The Departed," which he didn't carry as much as stay in tune with as part of a lively, impeccably orchestrated ensemble. He scowled in that picture, too, and his button-down, contained energy perfectly suited a character trying to pull off a painful double role.

DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels in "Shutter Island" in some ways resembles Billy Costigan in "The Departed," if only because Teddy's brow is similarly furrowed, he, too, speaks with broad Boston A's and he's hiding a secret of his own. Or maybe he's not. Drenched in post-World War II anxiety and chock-full of references to cinematic genres from Gothic horror and film noir to '50s B movies and Cold War thrillers, "Shutter Island" seeks to unsettle viewers, first with its characters' encounters with madness and finally with the question of which of them is mad at all.

"Shutter Island" doesn't work, but it's not entirely DiCaprio's fault. If he's still too boyish, too small-voiced to inhabit the trench coat convincingly, at least his scowl here seems earned rather than a petulant affectation. He brings a serious work ethic and focus to the role of Teddy -- who, in addition to being haunted by his experiences liberating Dachau -- is mourning the death of his wife, played in flashbacks by Michelle Williams.

Mark Ruffalo is far more believable as Teddy's new partner, Chuck Aule, who looks on with concern as Teddy begins to suffer strange migraines during the investigation. Ben Kingsley, as the enlightened doctor helping them with the investigation of a patient's disappearance, is all ramrod-straight rectitude and sinister elan.

Still, even with such accomplished actors hitting their marks -- along with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Max von Sydow in important supporting roles -- "Shutter Island" never adds up to more than an affectionate pastiche of the old movies Scorsese so famously loves.

Scorsese works with cinematographer Robert Richardson to give "Shutter Island" a weirdly heightened appearance, from an opening sequence set on a ferry that looks like a cheesy effects shot from the 1940s to the lurid, color-saturated flashbacks and hallucinations that intrude ever more insistently on the narrative. Scorsese devotes an inordinate amount of time to these sequences -- many of them featuring dead children -- giving life to Teddy's nightmares. But in making a surface text of what in film noir was kept suggestively hidden, he robs "Shutter Island" of its potential insinuating power. Genuine mystery gives way to clunky literalism and showy, increasingly repugnant shock effects.

Although DiCaprio has yet to fully inherit De Niro's mantle in the Scorsese oeuvre, the more important insight "Shutter Island" provides is how captive even the best directors are to the script. Every image and sound in the movie represents a choice by Scorsese, but one wonders how much those decisions were proscribed, first by Dennis Lehane's novel and then by its adaptation at the hand of Laeta Kalogridis, whose past credits include "Night Watch," "Alexander" and "Scream 3."

To behold the pulp horror whammies of "Shutter Island" is to be reminded not just of the Scorsese-De Niro powerhouses, but of the writers who helped create them (Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, Nicholas Pileggi) -- and to long for Marty to get one of those bands back together, at least one more time.


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