**/**** Image A Sound B Extras B-
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow
screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Walter Chaw The first thirty minutes of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island left me breathless with delight. The rack-focus through mess-hall implements; swaying along a ceiling as we peer beyond the door to the head, where our hero, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), is losing his lunch; the way a ferry blows through a fog bank like Travis Bickle's cab through the steam escaping a New York sewer cap. When it snows, it snows up like in the dream sequences from Bringing Out the Dead (there's even a moment when the smoke from Teddy's cigarette retreats into the butt)--and when a shadowy figure named Laeddis (Elias Koteas) finally materializes in the midst of Teddy's fugue, he bears a striking resemblance to Travis Bickle. (It's not until later that we understand the full extent of this self-reference.) Shutter Island is among the director's handsomest films, and moments of it suggest there's a masterpiece here--as a WWII Holocaust drama, or a ghost story, or a period Red Menace piece, or a 1960s Manchurian Candidate manqué, or a 1940s Freud clinic, or a G-Man noir, or a straight procedural, or a modernist existential piece--if he wants it. But it's less than the sum of its tantalizing parts, providing instead a hackneyed climax that proves just another votive lit in Dennis Lehane's church of dead children.
The staggering number of tremendous actors wasted in so glorious a piffle is the most criminally insane aspect of the picture. Along with DiCaprio and Koteas, we have Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, and Jackie Earle Haley, each of whom is given a moment to remind how great they are, which in turn is too much time for us to consider how inadequate is Laeta Kalogridis's (Nightwatch, Alexander, Pathfinder) script and Lehane's boilerplate source material in honouring the depths of which this cast is capable. It reminds a great deal, in fact, of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, in that there's definitely something there, but what that something might be has very little conversation with what might have been. I don't think Scorsese has a feel for the kind of popular shallowness that Shutter Island represents. His confusion is infectious.
Teddy travels to the titular locale to visit the asylum housed there, ostensibly to find a missing prisoner, though it's later revealed that he may have a couple of other reasons for wanting to snoop around the premises. There's a moment early on when I marvelled at the pain of Teddy's revelation that his wife (Williams) had died and how it's followed by one of Thelma Schoonmaker's crystalline cuts to Teddy bringing a hand to his face, allowing us to see that he's still wearing his wedding band. Then suddenly, he's not--then he is again. Then he switches places with his partner, then a woman drinking a glass of water seems to be merely pantomiming drinking a glass of water. Scorsese and Schoonmaker aren't novice filmmakers and accidents like this are frankly too revealing that something's amiss in the film's reality. It's a clumsiness that certainly isn't fatal, although it's definitely telling of the level of discomfort Scorsese has with the gimmick of this gadget picture. The mystery of Shutter Island's structure is exorcised in this way and it never recaptures the sense of dread of its opening reels, making its last two hours something of an ordeal as everything that's aesthetically wonderful about the film is burned off in the crucible of its maddening inconsequence.
Interrogation scenes are intercut with elaborate dream sequences and vivid flashbacks as it becomes clear that Teddy's conflated his presence at the liberation of Dachau with the death of his wife and his mission on the island. As with Cape Fear, Scorsese has the music and the weather reflect the interior torment of his characters: the clouds loom in extreme low angles, the breakers crash in God's-eye views. There're more things Scorsese's dreamt of in his heaven and earth than in Shutter Island's philosophies, I fear, and try as he might, just the sheer volume of crap crammed into the thing has stifled the project in its cradle. Still, it's so gorgeous, so glowering, so obviously the product of a master filmmaker, that its various wounds (and Von Sydow offers a wonderful monologue about the etymology of that word, "wound") aren't fatal until it tries too hard, in a pair of extended chamber-denouements, to explain away everything that was better left inexplicable. Sensing this, Scorsese gives Teddy a closing line that begs for a careful reassessment of all that's come before, but it's way too late by then to consider Shutter Island much more than a bad marriage between one of the best, most innovative filmmakers in the history of the medium and a narrative that's the very definition of mundane. Scorsese shouldn't be reduced to directing a Shyamalan master-plot; it's actually kind of amazing that Shutter Island is as good as it is. Originally published: February 19, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Shutter Island to Blu-ray in an exceedingly handsome 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. Nick Davis called Robert Richardson's cinematography "gangrenous" and I'd agree that it is--except when it isn't. There's nobody out there right now using the new grading technology quite like Scorsese, who demonstrated in The Aviator how colour processes evolved during the first half of the twentieth century. Here, he pumps up the saturation on the flashbacks/dream sequences to three-strip Technicolor intensity, causing stained wood to look not inappropriately blood red and actual blood to seem wetter than it usually does on screen. At any rate, now would be a good time to pull out a calibration tool like Digital Video Essentials if you intend on picking up Shutter Island, because this thing will sear your eyeballs unless you adjust your set accordingly. Contrast is deep and crisp throughout, fine detail is so spectacular that you can count the flecks in Dr. Sheehan's wool suit (or the trademark motes of dust under Richardson's hot lights, if you prefer), and there's a lovely filmic quality to the image that makes the picture feel like it never left the theatre. I was less enamoured with the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which sounds oddly squelched at times. Is it by design that the waves lapping at the shore of Shutter Island aurally "strobe" like chopper blades? Music is the best-rendered (and bassiest) aspect of the mix, dynamic in and of itself and beautifully balanced against dialogue and effects.
The disc closes out with "Behind the Shutters" (17 mins., HD) and "Into the Lighthouse" (21 mins., HD), companion featurettes that, between the careful explication of Easter eggs from Scorsese, novelist Dennis Lehane, et al and the esteemed praise of psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan (whose guidance in helming the project Scorsese sought out on the basis of Gilligan's seminal book Violence), mount a persuasive case for giving Shutter Island a second chance. A surprisingly definitive interpretation of the film's ending caps the second piece, the lighter of the two on production info. Originally published: June 1, 2010.