“Disturbing” would be one word, maybe the best word, for Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Fifties-period Dennis Lehane detective novel. Nothing, let’s be clear, in the list of ingredients — the Alcatrazzy asylum for the criminally insane, the locked-room mystery of a vanished female inmate, the dreamland visitations from the detective’s dead wife, his guilty flashbacks to WWII, his allegations of Nazi-like medical experiments funded by HUAC, the approaching hurricane — is particularly disturbing. Although all of it is likely to cause difficulty in swallowing, the locked-room part of it is actually appetizing. What’s disturbing, by and by, is to see a director of Scorsese’s stature (not physical stature of course) stooping to the unscrupulous bait-and-switch tactics that have become a vogue, if not a full-blown genre, ever since The Sixth Sense. The thickening Kafka-esque atmosphere, as befits a rat in a maze, alerts us that we’re not going to get the type of locked-room solution we expect from a detective like Dr. Gideon Fell. But it is only our instilled deference to Scorsese that would prevent us from anticipating, at the heart of the maze, the cheesy cheat which makes nonsense of everything we’ve come through. Or if not nonsense, at best irrelevance and at worst malpractice. The upshot is a terrible waste of energy, and indeed a great deal of energy unmistakably went into it, primarily that trademark overdirection that serves always as a sort of methodology of self-hype: the flash pans, the vertiginous overhead shots, the pumpkin-head closeups, the portentous tracking shots, the ponderous slo-mo, the full range of eye-grabbing gimmicks by which Scorsese sells, sells, sells his stuff. We like to see a director taking command, but when the material is piffle it can have the effect of travesty — rather like an orchestral transcription of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” in the style of Beethoven. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch. (2010) — Duncan Shepherd
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