There’s little doubt that Martin Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living directors; but it’s also just as evident he’s lost a few miles off his fastball over the last decade or so. True, he finally won a long overdue Academy Award for 2006’s The Departed, but, frankly, the film doesn’t even crack his top ten. And here, with this wobbly would-be psychological thriller — based on a novel by the often-overreaching Dennis Lehane — Scorsese has, perhaps, made his weakest film since Gangs of New York.
Part of the problem might be his continued insistence on using Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man. It’s not that DiCaprio isn’t a skilled actor — when he settles into a suitable role, he can be absolutely enthralling — it’s that his range isn’t anywhere near as extensive as his various A-List directors keep insisting it is. He’s like an NBA player with an effective mid-range jumper who keeps jumping out beyond the three-point line and hoisting up bricks. DiCaprio runs into trouble when he’s attempting to play older, more lived in and grizzled characters: With his perennially boyish face and a voice prone to breaking when he’s upset, he simply can’t convey the weight of time and anguish on a character’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the rest of the stellar talent Scorsese has assembled here, including Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow and Michelle Williams, are almost criminally wasted. It’s Leo’s show, in other words, and he’s simply not up to the task.
It also doesn’t help that Scorsese is adapting a Lehane novel (from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis). In previous works, such as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Lehane has shown a propensity for overwrought, undercooked characters and nonsensical plotting; the trend continues here. DeCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who comes to this remote island asylum off of Boston Harbor with his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, who holds a perpetual expression of quizzical horror). Ostensibly, they are there to investigate the escape of one of their patients, a deranged woman (Emily Mortimer), who had drowned her children; however, it eventually comes out that Teddy has his own agenda in mind — trying to track down the killer of his wife, said also to be an inmate on the island.
Thus ensues a series of laborious and obvious dream sequences/psychotropic encounters between the increasingly agitated Teddy, his dead wife, piles of dead bodies, other prisoners and reams of scattered papers flying in the air. None of these sequences are terribly arresting or effective, a reaction that sadly can be said of the whole enterprise. Never before has Scorsese had to rely on such hoary visual metaphors: leaping flames, reverse smoke curling, crumbling ashes, pouring rain, spinning records. It’s as if he’s channeled an episode of “Twin Peaks” via Angel Heart, a film that plays similar mind tricks, but far more effectively. Scorsese can be commended for trying to break new ground — getting away from New York, Italians, mobsters and Robert DeNiro — but you still hate to see such a supreme talent working on a project so beneath him. When he’s churning out flicks that could have just as easily been made by Brett Ratner, you know it’s time for an intervention.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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