Thursday, February 18, 2010


Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley

U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is summoned to Shutter Island in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the island's mental hospital. As Teddy and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) dig deeper into the investigation, they discover all is not what it seems at the hospital, and the man responsible for the well-being of the patients may very well hold the key to the island's deadly secret.

If the above description of Martin Scorses's new film sounds as generic as a film plot can get, that's because it is. Even if you've only seen a handful of movies in your lifetime, the plot of Shutter Island will seem at least vaguely familiar and not terribly surprising. You'll probably even be able to figure out the final twist in the story - the moment you realize everything you've just seen means something else - if you haven't already just by watching the trailer. This would normally be a huge problem for a thriller - how thrilling is it, really, if we already know what's going to happen? What saves Shutter Island, however, is the director's dedication to the genre's aesthetics, both visual and aural, a great lead-performance, and a who's who of a supporting cast giving their all and having fun with the schlocky B-grade material.

This isn't the first time Martin Scorsese has covered this kind of ground (he directed the 1991 remake of Cape Fear which treads the same territory), but it's definitely the most fun he's had with it. And even though it's not the type of film you're used to seeing from him, he's obviously very comfortable with it and adept with the material. It's always great to see a master tackling a genre that's not their forte and, sometimes, schooling those who may dabble more in that same genre only to lesser effect. I have a feeling that in the hands of another, less proficient (dare I say younger) director, Shutter Island would have been an absolute mess - a jump-scare filled, jump-cut edited, heavy-metal music blaring, music-video-esque disaster.

Instead, the film is very methodical and tense. Robert "Currently Nominated for an Oscar for My Work on Inglourious Basterds" Richardson's cinematography is quite stunning, contrasting the bright, popping blues, greens, and yellows of life outside the island with the drab gray, blacks, and blues behind the hospital walls. Richardson's camera is allowed to move in and around the island/hospital like a lost patient observing the story - it hides behind chain-linked fences, observes through steel-meshed floor. It whips suddenly, and lingers on the long, barely lit hallways. Scorsese knows that the images the mind creates when faced with the total absence of light is much more frightening than anything put in front of the camera. He also makes great use of sound: the anguished cries of patients are audible throughout the film, as is the battering of the hospital by an outside storm, and these aural cuts have much to do with launching Shutter Island's creepy factor to 11.

Much has been made (if you pay attention to this sort of thing) of Paramount's decision to move Shutter Island from an October 2009 release date to February 2010. I'm not going to speculate on the reason for the date change, however I do think had the film been released during the fourth quarter of 2009 then Leonardo DiCaprio would have been a strong contender for at least a Golden Globe Best Actor nod, if not an outside shot at an Academy Award nomination. While I've always kind of liked his work, it's been hard to argue that some of his roles in the last decade have not fit. His performance as Teddy Daniels, however, is his strongest stuff in years. I'm finally seeing what Scorsese has been seeing in him for almost the past decade. It's just a shame it took almost four collaborations between the two for that to happen.

The rest of the cast is a grab-bag full of some of my favorite supporting players. Max von Sydow (who turns 81 in April!) shows up as the sinister Dr. Naehring; Mark Ruffalo turns in a solid performance as Teddy's partner; Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley (last seen as Rorschach in Watchmen) are maniacal mental patients; and John Corroll Lynch and Ted Levine have small roles as a corrections officer and the hospital warden respectively. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the acting talent involved here. One of the joys in watching the movie is seeing these actors play off each other and realize they're in a B-grade thriller directed by a legend.

Like The Wolfman, Shutter Island is a movie that is lifted above the mediocre nature of it's screenplay by a talented director and participants that care about film as a craft. (Shutter Island also has an advantage of an outstanding music supervisor who has chosen some magnificent pre-existing pieces of music - one of which can be found here and the other here to go along with Scorsese's images.) Both of these films are very modern yet lean heavily on old-fashioned techniques, creating exciting and new ideas. Shutter Island may not be a revolution in storytelling, but it certainly is masterful filmmaking .


  1. Great review! I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

  2. Good review, you captured it all.

  3. Just saw it last night - good review. It didn't revolutionize filmmaking, but it did the fundamental in ways that were definitely noteworthy. The amount of visual cues peppered in were amazing. (And thanks for the lack of spoiler above!)

  4. i whole-heartedly agree