(After experimenting this way and that, I've realised that I can't really write any kind of analysis of Shutter Island that addresses exactly what makes it such an irritating, dispiriting and above all unsatisfying experience, without making pretty damn free with the spoilers for the film's massive, easily-guessed third act twist. So easily-guessed, in fact, that there's something of a growing consensus that we're actually supposed to figure it out, but if this is enough to keep you from reading the whole thing, and you still want to know my "capsule" thoughts, they are: a visually handsome movie that lacks any stakes, emotional or intellectual; and Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't been this bad since at least Gangs of New York).

Martin Scorsese is a better filmmaker than puzzle boxes. His best films are lusty and visceral, not because of their literal viscera but because of the pulsing urges which drive them: think upon his last truly great work, Goodfellas, with all those heaving moments pushed by their rock soundtracks and breakneck camerawork and off-the-wall editing into a state of exhausted cinematic bliss, or the raw presence and fleshy immediacy of Raging Bull, forever his reigning masterpiece. These are intense films, momentous films, films that strike you right in the glands. Nothing could be farther from this than Shutter Island, a film stuck deep inside its own head - a less generous reviewer might name a different part of the body - where it can only really function as an intellectual exercise: either you're trying to figure out what's going on, or if you know what's going on, and you're trying to figure out what it means in terms of human sanity and the nature of moral behavior, or something along those lines.

"What's going on". The big twist ending of Shutter Island is so absurdly easy to guess that I don't half-wonder if that's the whole point. It's a movie about an isolated psychiatric hospital; they can only have two possible twist endings, that the asylum has been taken over by the patients, or The Other One. There seems to be absolutely no reason to assume that the very articulate, un-twitchy people we see running the asylum are insane, so it pretty much has to be The Other One. Of course, there could have been no twist at all, and wouldn't that have been a brave, bold statement to make: that this story of a federal marshal named Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) who travels to the remote Shutter Island in Boston Harbor in 1954 to help in the hunt for a missing patient is precisely what it looks like. Poof, you've got the set-up for exactly the "lost in a dark, creepy place" movie that was promised by the absurdly misleading marketing campaign (Did you see the trailer? Did you love it? Did you look forward to seeing Scorsese return to psychological horror? Oops, because there is not a single goddamn thing about Shutter Island that comes within shouting distance of "horror"). Then, of course, this wouldn't be an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel, but that would be a small price to pay for making it a good film (I'm not trying to slam the book, which I haven't read).

So yeah, Teddy is, of course, a patient at the asylum; he killed his wife and went nuts and created an elaborate alternative personality. I'm 95% positive that I was far from the only person who assumed all of that before I set foot in the theater. And knowing that information makes Shutter Island both a bit easier to take and a lot harder to take seriously.

Mostly, it makes it easier to take in the first scene, which is otherwise a cinematic barbarism that would make you despair that Scorsese and a whole lot of extremely talented collaborators had all regressed to their first year at film school. The setting is a boat, where Teddy, besotted with motion sickness, and his brand new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are traveling towards Shutter Island, which is otherwise inaccessible. Two things leap out during this sequence: some extremely lousy rear-projection, and arguably the all-time worst continuity editing in any Scorsese movie ever. About the first of these in particular, it is worth noting that Scorsese has claimed a Hitchcock influence in making Shutter Island, and it's certainly not beyond belief that someone with his somewhat impish approach to moviemaking would use deliberately shoddy rear-projection as part of an homage to Hitchcock. About the second, discontinuous editing has always been a trademark of Scorsese's films as cut by Thelma Schoonmaker, not I think because either of them craves discontinuity, but because it rather suits their purpose to privilege performance and visual rhythm over what is ultimately a fairly shallow concern. But even that doesn't really explain the awful cutting going on here, which is arrhythmic to the point of distraction, or even physical discomfort if you're a real editing fiend.

But! There is a but! Since the movie is about Teddy's mental break, cannot it be said that these seeming weaknesses are in fact our first clues to his fractured state? That the film is beginning its inquiry into psychological stability in these very first moments by breaking apart its own formal coherence? Sure, that can be said. But in that case, the distinct lack of any such particularly obvious stylistic quirks later in the movie (after this scene, the only time that I'd argue that any technical element of the movie can be said to represent "insanity" is the infrequent use of whip pans) is hard to explain, and I'm forced to wonder if I'm just trying to make excuses for Schoonmaker, who used to be my favorite editor of them all before she started gently getting worse with every film she cut after Gangs.

There's a hell of a lot that Shutter Island tries to get away with using the "but he's insane!" card: crappy editing, some very peculiar logic leaps in the story and in the locations of some scenes, and arguably DiCaprio's performance, which manages the neat trick of being both stiff and broad at the same time (he also boasts a compellingly bad Boston accent that mostly disappears after the ten-minute mark; and so soon after doing such a fine job of it in The Departed, too). So conceded. Let us then take a look at his insanity, and what it does for the movie:

Not a fucking thing.

I'm actually willing to spot the movie on some bits and pieces of elegant craftsmanship: it certainly looks sleek and almost impossibly atmospheric thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson operating at his very peak (I should qualify that: he is not, as in The Aviator or Kill Bill, Vol. 2, doing especially innovative things with the camera or film stock, but his control of lighting and composition are nearly divine here). Sandy Powell's costume designs are all at once perfect for evoking 1954, suggestive of character, and have a certain abstract quality that gives them an emotional charge. And Dante Ferretti's production design gives the whole thing an otherworldly, almost Gothic feeling, that does probably more than any other element of the whole film to really legitimise the idea that we're watching a world filtered through a madman's eyes. I never consider it a sign of good things when I'm reduced to praising the costumes and sets, unless the film in question is an outright exercise in sheer style, which Shutter Island certainly isn't; but let's go ahead and say that we've got half of a successful movie here: it looks darn good.

The other half... what the hell. The story, in brief: we follow a man for two hours, watching as his paranoia seems increasingly justified while he finds it harder and harder to deal with his post-WWII trauma. Then, in the last twenty minutes, we find out that the man we've been following never existed. If the film had been nothing more than a shabby little shocker, this would be just fine, if a bit shallow and trite. But it's never, ever shabby, nor very shocking. It's a psychodrama with some overlaid thriller elements. Scorsese may want this to be his Hitchcock film, but we spend most of it in Bergman Country, what with the symbolicious dream sequences involving Dachau (the appropriation of Holocaust imagery is dubious, at least) or water and fire, and the otherwise-pointless casting of Max von Sydow in what amounts to a cameo role - everyone besides DiCaprio, Ruffalo, and Ben Kingsley as the asylum director has what amounts to a cameo role - that gives the film some unearned Scandinavian gravitas (anyway, even Hitchcock's films are primarily psychodramas, they're just a bit more genre-driven than artsy). My point being, it's hard for a story to be a psychodrama when everything it tells us about the main character turns out to be a lie or a misdirection. It's a "gotcha!" film, and if you can see the twist coming from a mile away (which I'm going to assume you could, especially if you're reading this before you see the movie), that makes for a lot of irritated waiting for the gotcha to hurry on its merry way and getch.

There are, in essence, no stakes: there's absolutely no reason to give a damn about Teddy Daniels or what happens to him. A great performance might have overcome this, but DiCaprio is a dead fish, as is most of the cast - the smaller the role, the better the performance, in general, though only Patricia Clarkson, snarky and lively and wired, and Ted Levine, gaudily menacing, stand out in my memory - and the film generally lacks any human element worth talking about. I at least cannot even say what Shutter Island is "about" (I have encountered reviewers who have praised the film for its insights into the mind and how broken people cope or fail to cope; as they did not specify what they meant by this, I can't begin to imagine what they're talking about), so wholly does it fail to engage me in any way. Maybe it's not about anything more than Scorsese's well-established delight in finding coy ways to reference classic filmmakers - it has perhaps more quotations from more movies than any of his other films - but I really hope not. Still, I'll be switched if I can tell you what the film has to say about identity or personal morality, though it certainly seems to be something (I also can't tell you why it suffers from a soundtrack largely made up of avant-garde 20th Century classical pieces applied with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but that is another issue). Leaving us with something not remotely as fun or or playfully gauche as its genre trappings imply, and an experience a bit like eating a heavy meal and then being hungry again right away.