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The delicious twist that ends “Shutter Island” is a doozy

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BY GINA PICCALO

The delicious twist that ends Martin Scorsese’s gothic genre thriller “Shutter Island” is a doozy. At one preview screening, an audience of professional filmgoers were all but silent as they filed out of the theater with furrowed brows. But the memorable climax is far from the only reason critics and film buffs sound a tad flummoxed by the master auteur’s follow up to his 2006 Oscar winner “The Departed.” Scorsese packed a lot into “Shutter Island.” Some say too much. Indeed, depending on whom you ask, this transcendent hallucination of a film is either a masterpiece or an overwrought homage to Scorsese’s noir favorites.

Perhaps it’s a case of inflated expectations. “Shutter Island” was, after all one of the most anticipated films of last year. And for good reason. It looks like an award-winner, on paper anyway. It’s set in 1954, off the windswept East Coast somewhere near Boston. Leonardo DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels who, with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is summoned to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient (Emily Mortimer) from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. But the investigation is soon thwarted first by the institution’s sinister psychiatrists (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), then by a hurricane that sweeps the rocky island and finally by Daniels’ own incessant WWII flashbacks and nightmares of the death of his beloved wife (Michelle Williams).

It was expected to be one of this year’s Oscar contenders. Indeed, movie buffs and Hollywood insiders are still puzzling over the fact that last August, Paramount Pictures pushed its release from Oct. 2 to Feb. 19, effectively pulling it from the Oscar race.

At the time, a movie trailer had already been out for months. Early screenings had already tested well with audiences. Oscar buzz was already fomenting for DiCaprio. Still, the official word from Paramount chief Brad Grey was that the economy trumped all those. The studio apparently lacked the funds to properly market the picture. So, the studio put its Oscar campaigns behind Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” instead.

Now that the reviews are trickling it’s apparent that the studio’s reasons for pushing the film’s release were a bit more nuanced. Despite its stellar cast, its master director, its origins in Dennis Lehane’s best-selling 2003 novel, “Shutter Island” is somewhat of a tough sell.

Variety’s Todd McCarthy considered the film “expert,” occupying a similar place in Scorsese’s repertoire that “The Shining” holds in that of Stanley Kubrick. But New York Magazine’s David Edelstein called the movie “a long slog.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt, meanwhile, wrote that it was “a pleasure to experience Scorsese as a circus master. One just hopes he doesn’t continue in this vein.”

Even the film’s new trailer has prompted some head-scratching (albeit from folks who apparently haven’t yet seen the film.) The Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein wondered why the studio plugged six Scorsese titles in the film’s Super Bowl spot, but used a trailer filled with “creepy horror-film images” that “make it feel a lot more like we’re watching a Wes Craven movie.” “It doesn’t look bad,” writes The Guardian’s Anna Pickard, “Why does it feel as if it’s being treated that way by a nervous studio?”

It’s almost as if the ambiguity of the film’s plot infiltrated the marketing of it.

The bottom line is: as a moviegoer, “Shutter Island” often feels over-the-top and strangely off-putting. There are moments of brilliance set against moments of gratuitous horror. Odd instances of discontinuity, skillfully placed by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, keep the audience on shaky ground throughout the film.

And DiCaprio and Ruffalo affect a jaunty, formal style of delivering dialogue – something Scorsese purposefully inspired them to do with screenings of Otto Preminger’s 1944 crime thriller “Laura” and Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 tale of double-crosses “Out of the Past.” “There’s a certain style of filmmaking that the men of that era had,” Ruffalo says. “They’re different than us. They’re rhythms are different.” They’re pretending to over-act, but the audience doesn’t exactly get the reason why until two hours later.

It will almost certainly become a Scorsese classic for some. But for the rest of us, it’s almost too much to absorb in one sitting. To hear Scorsese talk, though, that response is the one he wanted.

“What’s interesting to me,” he says in the film’s press notes, “is how the story keeps changing, and the reality of what’s happening keeps changing, and how up until the very final scene, it’s all about how the truth is perceived.”

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