Judge Clark Douglas knows there's something fishy going on.
Someone is missing.
"There is no moral order as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this: can my violence conquer yours?"
Facts of the Case
The movie begins in an ominous manner, as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) travel by ferry to the mysterious place known as Shutter Island. "It's a mental institution," Ruffalo says darkly. "For the criminally insane," DiCaprio follows, as bombastic modern classical music storms onto the soundtrack with a foreboding fury. The Marshalls have been called to the island to investigate a disappearance at the mental institution there; it seems a woman who was being kept in a high-security cell has simply vanished. There's something very fishy surrounding the circumstances of her disappearance, and Teddy quickly digs deeper to find out what sort of sordid activities are taking place within the confines of the institution.
Martin Scorsese returns to the world of cinema with an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel Shutter Island, which is simultaneously new and familiar terrain for the famed director. The movie is a daring departure for Scorsese, a film that opens itself up to ridicule in a number of ways, but proves immensely rewarding for those willing to play along.
Much has been made of the fact that Scorsese is using Shutter Island as a way to pay homage to the films of yesteryear, from thrillers like Shock Corridor to moody noir pictures like Out of the Past. And so he is. However, much like Quentin Tarantino (another director fond of paying homage to genre films he loves), Scorsese finds a way to compile his influences into a film that transcends many of the B-movies it draws inspiration from. Shutter Island may feel like a slightly campy game for a while, but Scorsese has a few aces up his sleeve that sharpens our focus and eventually allows us to see the film for what it really is.
You have probably heard by now that Shutter Island has a twist ending. It does, and I'm certainly not going to spoil it. However, in and of itself, the twist isn't particularly fascinating; it's actually kind of easy to figure out, if you're paying attention (I did within the first half-hour). What's fascinating is the manner in which Scorsese uses the plot development to increase the depth of the film rather than simply shock us. In fact, he doesn't seem at all interested in startling the audience, easing us into the truth rather than pulling a curtain and doing a Big Reveal (ala The Usual Suspects and its slo-mo shattered coffee cup).
There aren't many films I would say this about, but Shutter Island is a film that demands to be seen at least twice (of course, I think most good movies are worth watching multiple times, but few actually demand it). There is a question asked at the conclusion of the film, a haunting and profound question that has silently worked its way into a great deal of Scorsese's work over the years. It's a good question to keep in mind when watching the film a second time, as you see the events of the film from a different perspective. Shutter Island is a film that grows more resonant with time, as its seemingly awkward moments and over-the-top stylistic flourishes begin to feel increasingly appropriate.
The cast is strong across the board, led by a very capable Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor has grown considerably from collaboration to collaboration, and continues to demonstrate new depths as his career progresses. He's required to handle some very challenging scenes in this film, which he does with nuance and feeling. Mark Ruffalo is appealing and low-key in a large role with only a little dialogue, while Ben Kingsley (Schindler's List) and Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal) offer varying shades of suspect behavior in their elusive roles as the doctors in charge of the institution. Meanwhile, Jackie Earl Haley (Watchmen), Patricia Clarkson (Welcome to Collinwood), Ted Levine (Monk), Emily Mortimer (Transsiberian), Elias Koteas (Skinwalkers), and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) all manage to impress in smaller parts.
Even though Scorsese employed a wide variety of cameras and filming techniques making Shutter Island, the 1080p MPEG-4 hi-def transfer is impressively consistent. Despite the gloomy nature of the film, the color palette is quite striking and vibrant, going a long way towards giving the film that old-fashioned feeling it seeks to achieve. Bright colors pop off the screen, though the many darker scenes benefit from strong shading and deep blacks. Detail is exceptional throughout, with particular high marks for background detail; in particular, the outdoor scenes offer a lot to soak in. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is superb, and watching the film at home really gives one an appreciation for the excellent work done in the sound department. The biggest impression comes from a blend of atonal modern classical compositions slithering and pounding their way through the speakers, but the quieter, more atmospheric moments benefit from a great attention to detail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's up with Scorsese's recent films and the lack of substantial special features? Commentary tracks used to be the norm for Scorsese, as were in-depth documentaries (see releases for Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull). However, the director's recent outings have been pretty sparse in this department: The Departed didn't offer much, Rolling Stones: Shine a Light gave us next to nothing, and now Shutter Island lands on Blu-ray with only two measly featurettes. First is "Behind the Shutters" (17 minutes), a nice piece on the making of the film and some of the ideas at its center (spoilers abound, so be sure to wait until after you've seen the film). "In the Lighthouse" (21 minutes) is a piece on the film's psychological aspects and how the actors prepared to handle some of the trickier aspects of their roles. Both featurettes are admittedly quite good, but it seems like far too little for a film of this caliber; one which is both critically acclaimed and a box office hit.
In some ways, Shutter Island is the boldest film Scorsese has made in a while, taking big cinematic risks that will not pay off for every viewer. There's less unanimous love for the film than for something like The Departed. Even so, I was fascinated and deeply moved. Shutter Island is yet another great film from one of cinema's greatest living directors.
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