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Feature


In the year 1954, at the height of post-war, Red Scare hysteria, U.S. Marshal Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of an inmate named Rachel Salando (Emily Mortimer). As the investigation begins it becomes immediately clear that the staff and doctors have something to hide, including possible ill-will towards the investigators. Teddy also reveals a hidden agenda to Chuck, and slowly begins to spiral into madness via migraine headaches, and nightmare memories of his dead wife, and his time in WWII. But is his madness real, or is it the actions of the mysterious Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley).

Shutter Island
Shutter Island is Martin Scorsese’s most visually expressive and stimulating film since Gangs of New York, the closest the director has gotten to a straight-up horror film since Cape Fear. Scorsese uses the story’s setting and hallucinatory aspects as a valid excuse to pay homage to his favourite era thrillers. Besides the obvious Hitchcock and Howard Hawks references, the director gets in a few passing allusions to Jacques Tourneur and Michael Powell (the big reveal features a Curse of the Cat People-like setting and some very red shoes). Shutter Island also features a collection of incredible, riveting performances, performances that add a tragic, realistic center to Scorsese’s poetic, nightmare images. The performances are so good I wish the film had made its October release, because I’m guessing it won’t be remembered around Oscar time this year, and I firmly think DiCaprio and Ted Levine earned best actor and supporting actor nominations, respectfully. In visual and actorly terms Shutter Island is a very good movie, however it features some destructively floppy narrative elements that threaten to tear down all the director's and actor’s efforts.

So now that I have the basics out of the way, everything after this point in the ‘feature’ section of my review will feature minor spoilers, so anyone still intending on viewing the film entirely blind should probably skip to ‘video’, though I promise not to give away anything huge.

Shutter Island
Still here? Okay, so the minor spoiler, which has probably been spoiled for most of you already, is that there is a big twist at the end of the film. The twist is kind of stupid, depletes or flat-out drops many of the most interesting plot elements, and requires a huge leaps in suspension of disbelief. Mostly everything adds up, so the ending isn’t a total cheat, and without the twist one of the best scenes wouldn’t have such wonderful subtext, but there are so many other ways this story could go, and pretty much every one of them is more satisfying. Delving any further into alternate endings would constitute more spoilers than I’d be comfortable expressing in a review, but needless to say the rest of the story, based on Dennis Lehane’s ( Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) novel, is compelling enough up to deserve better. The audience is left to decide if the twist is ‘real’, but the final dialogue (‘which would be better, to live as a monster, or to die as a good man’) doesn’t really allow alternate readings, assuming we’re left to take it literally. The twist is equally damaging to the film’s subtext, that of the state of psychological medicine in the early ‘50s. This subtext is arguably the more important narrative element. The brutality of the ‘old school’ still clearly presented, and there is a sense of profound tragedy, but the ridiculous nature of the less barbaric treatment robs it of historical relevance.

This is the second time I’ve watched the film, and the twist makes even less sense when I’m given the chance to reevaluate. It cheapens the experience a bit, and I’m now less likely to watch the film a third time, but the perfectly beautiful imagery is definitely richer, which based on my opinion of the film the first time around may be the more important fact. Objects disappear between shots, making the audience question the validity of the image, and characters exchange knowing glances that on first viewing appear general confusion. The first time around these are almost unnoticeable, but psychologically they make an impact, especial mixed with the film’s frantic sense of editing. The performances are also taken to a different level, especially Mark Ruffalo, whose acting takes on a more interesting level, even though his character makes the least sense once the twist is revealed.

Shutter Island

Video


The print of the film I saw in theaters was really grainy, and I expected more of the same from this Blu-ray, but apparently that was just a bad print (I haven’t gone back to that particular theater since), because this 1080p transfer is bloody gorgeous. There is some grain, but nothing as thick as I experienced, and nothing beyond what should be expected from 35mm film. The bulk of the movie is generally cool and green tinted, without very many poppy colour highlights. These scenes are generally average in terms of detail and sharpness, until the plot starts going a little wiggy, and lights are blown out into perfect whites to express Teddy’s migraine. The outside sections are sharper, and feature higher contrast blacks, along with deeper set focus. Some of the establishing shots are impeccable. The warmer evening scenes, specifically those in the rooms where doctors congregate, are grainier and softer than the rest of the film, but feature full-bodied reds and golds, which stand apart from the rest of the film, excepting Teddy’s memories and flashbacks. These more abstract and expressionistic sequences are the transfer’s shining moments. There are a couple choices of beautiful here – super-saturated warmth, with lush green highlights, and extremely cool winter scenes with expressive red highlights. In all this is a well mix stew of all the things that make high definition home video versions of movies shot on real film worth owning. The only real problem with the transfer is the sharpness during the outdoor sequences gives away the not exactly perfect green screen work.

Shutter Island

Audio


Apparently Paramount started going with DTS-HD Master Audio tracks over Dolby TrueHD recently, and I didn’t really put it together until now. This 5.1 track is a fantastic sampling of the format’s capabilities, from minute subtleties to grand swaths of noise. Even the simplest dialogue scenes feature immersive rear channel work in the form of the ongoing storm outside. The effect is natural, and turns plenty aggressive whenever the characters wonder outside. Again, the more expressionistic scenes come across as the most impressive, save the massive storm effects. The coolest aural moment comes during the big pan over Nazi execution sequence, which flings a couple hundred bullets from the front to rear channels. The scene where Teddy explores the bowels of Ward C is another audio highlight, featuring frightening spikes in volume, eerie, directional surround channel whispers, and cool echo effects. The dialogue is occasionally inconsistent between shots (over the shoulder vs. screen right, etc), but the center channel sound is otherwise natural, and stands out well against the busy stereos. The film’s music ‘supervision’ is credited to The Band member, and one of America’s best songwriters, Robbie Robertson. Apparently Robertson and the director gathered a collection of previously recorded music, but unlike Goodfellas or Mean Streets this acquired score is made up mostly of classical score. The uncompressed audio allows these rich, bassy strings to really explode through the stereo channels without any distortion, and the LFE throbs as intended.

Shutter Island

Extras


As seems to be the norm with Martin Scorsese’s more recent releases, the extras here are brief, and relatively disappointing. ‘Behind the Shutter’ (16:30, HD) covers the general making-of the film, including discussion of the original novel, character building, pre-production prep, Scorsese’s direction, casting, music, and developing the film for a second viewing. The featurette’s tone is pretty fluffy, but there are huge spoilers, so it clearly wasn’t meant as an EPK. When interview subjects are left to talk about their own contributions they tend to approach discussion with honesty, but they back-pat the other contributors, and the featurette’s pacing is too aggressive to really fill in our questions on the film. ‘Into the Lighthouse’ (21:30, HD) deals a bit with the reality of the insanity, including words from a real psychiatrist who enjoys the visual representations, but admits the plot isn’t very believable. Overall it’s a good, brief look at a complex subject, which also covers some of the wonderful production design.

Shutter Island

Overall


Shutter Island is at once one of director Martin Scorsese’s most impressive visual feasts, and one of his weakest film in terms of script. The ending is lame, but the build up is powerful stuff, amplified by fantastic performances, so one’s overall opinion will depend on one’s tolerance for a twist that discounts a lot of the best aspects of the film. I’m personally still torn after a second viewing, which strengthened both my love of the good, and my disappointment of the finale. This Blu-ray release features little in terms of extras, but the video quality is quite remarkable, as is the DTS-HD soundtrack, which features an incredible collection of acquired classical music, and some appropriately shudder inducing sound effects.

*Note: The Images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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