The land of nightmares is well-trodden territory for director Martin Scorcese. Scorcese says his 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro and a 13-year-old Jodie Foster, was inspired by a desire to visualize the world of dreams and dope-induced hallucination on screen. Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, three BAFTA’s, and earned four Academy Award nominations.
Admittedly, I’ve never seen Taxi Driver, but after seeing Scorcese’s latest psychological thriller Shutter Island, it’s gone to the top of my Netflix cue — if it’s anything like Shutter, it’ll be one of the most compelling film viewings I’ll see this year.
The film opens on the waters of a murky Boston harbor, with a harbor ferry emerging from the mists. Onboard is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), recently bereaved of his wife, en route to a mental hospital on one of the islands to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient. As the investigation continues, Daniels and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) suspect the hospital’s staff — and its brainstrust (Ben Kingsley & Max von Sydow) — are hiding something. As a hurricane hits the island, complicating the investigation, the audience follows Daniels as he plunges into a mysterious hallucinatory state.
The film’s first half may be enough to keep the film out of awards territory — the film is a slow burn, and it starts very slowly, and stumbling on a few poorly executed moments early on. Early on, as DiCaprio floats through a psychotic dream-state, he picks up the body of a bloody child who utters flatly, “I’m dead.” Yeah, duh — there were a few confused chuckles in the theater. Scorcese spends much of the first half mired in exposition, finally advancing the film’s broader narrative in a crucial scene between DiCaprio and Ruffalo just after the storm hits. I also think DiCaprio seemed out-of-place in the role — subtlety has never been Leo’s strong suit, and fully realizing a role as juicy as Daniels demands some nuance.
But there’s a critical turning point — which I don’t want to spoil (Here’s a mild-spoiler hint if you’re interested) — and after this, the film is pure gold. Predictable attacks on modern psychology get turned on their heads, and Kingsley is masterful as the film reaches its climax. Scorcese toys with the audience with gripping visual effects that redeem whatever lags there were in the first half. Despite its complexity, the film’s narrative doesn’t have the layers one might expect — which could be its greatest downfall, or its greatest asset. In the end, it’s classic Scorcese, who’s cut-and-dry approach leaves an ambiguous film with a relatively unambiguous ending (I wish I could fully explicate that here, but again, I’m not in a spoiling mood!).
The verdict: See it. 4/5 stars.