As a longtime film writer, who's covered the Cannes Film Festival since 1992—most recently for Movieline—I wasn't particularly surprised to see negative reviews coming from top-self critics. The often reliable A.O. "What Does My Kid Think?" Scott at the New York Times completely trashed the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a fifties-era U.S. federal marshal tasked to investigate a prisoner disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane.
Though his taste is questionable and at times truly puzzling, Scott is one of my favorite film critics and as a nuts-and-bolts writer, he's one of the best at the Times. But his review of Shutter Island was peculiar and off base for many reasons. First, he deemed it relevant to use ALL CAPS in his review. He opens by saying:
"Shutter Island" takes place off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954. I'm sorry, that should be OFF THE COAST OF MASSACHUSETTS! IN 1954! since every detail and incident in the movie, however minor, is subjected to frantic, almost demented (and not always unenjoyable) amplification.
Amidst yuk-yuks about the actors and their (relatively believable) Boston accents—"Teddy's partner (pahtnah), Chuck Aule, played by Mark (Mahk) Ruffalo"—Scott goes on to say the film is chockablock with "narrative misdirection." Note to Marty: Work on that, will you? Do you know anything about directing? Scott's final shove of Scorsese off the ledge comes when he says, "[Scorsese] seems to have been unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about."
Scott seems to be have some behind-the-scenes loathing for Scorsese's rather hefty payday for the unabashedly Hollywood movie. That's where New York magazine critic David Edelstein steps in.
Edelstein's review was far more vitriolic. He hinted that the only reason Scorsese made the film was, indeed, for a "fat studio paycheck." He goes on to say the movie was simply . . . too movieish.
But even when the detective-story foundation begins to crumble and the gumshoe protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes racked with visions of concentration camps and bloody children and babbles about Communist subversives and Nazi experiments, Shutter Island is still suffocatingly movieish.
When I read Scott's and Edelstein's reviews, I was reminded of another big-budget Hollywood studio film made by another legendary film director. In 1999, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was released, posthumously, and how the top critics howled. They couldn't heap contempt upon Kubrick fast enough. Dinosaur Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer said:
What surprised me the most . . . was the sketchy and episodic structure of the narrative, the feeble attempts at melodramatic tension and suspense, and the clumsily corny and anticlimactic ending with its halfhearted four-letter-word mantra.
Others lesser-knowns said things like: Those scenes in New York City? What? That doesn't look like the New York City I know. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice wrote:
At worst, Eyes Wide Shut is ponderously (up)dated—as though Kubrick had finally gotten around to responding to Michelangelo Antonioni's druggy Blow-Up—if not weirdly anachronistic. (It's difficult to make a movie about a city you last set foot in 35 years ago.)
Note the last dig: Criticizing Kubrick for not making New York look like New York. Does Hoberman really think Kubrick didn't remember what New York City was like? So he simply faked the exterior shots? Yes, the city shots in Eyes Wide Shut do look dreamy and ethereal (the film is based on the Arthur Schnitzler novella Dream Story) but are critics in general—and Hoberman in particular—that jaded as to not give Kubrick (and Scorsese) the benefit of the doubt?
In reviews of both Shutter and Eyes, critics also complained that the plots were nearly incomprehensible; an odd observation considering both films were adapted from written works. And both directors were tsk-tsked for seemingly becoming sellouts, Hollywood whores.
In the end, I think many critics who initially hated Eyes Wide Shut probably now see the genius behind it. At the time of its release, it was the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman Dog-and-Pony Show. The film's importance and resonance got lost behind the nonsensical panoply of celebrity. If Kubrick deserves any fault it's for casting a larger-than-life celeb couple who eventually eclipsed the film itself.
With Shutter Island as well I see the same critics who are blasting it today as the ones tomorrow who'll rethink their initial scorn and see the film for what it is: An unconventional, intricate, spellbinding psychological thriller that perhaps overreaches, but it at least takes the suspense genre to new heights.