We've seen movies before where we question the mind's eye against reality, but we haven't really seen it through Martin Scorsese's line of sight. He teases the notion a bit in Bringing Out the Dead, arguably the director's most scatterbrained creation, but he mostly roots his work in gritty actuality and a sprawling sense of truth. Now, he brings us Shutter Island, an adaptation on a mind-rattling novel from Dennis Lehane, where every corner we turn leaves us uneasy about the ground the characters tread on. This is foreign territory for the celebrated director, a picture that's dark, mysterious, and labyrinthine in psychosis; and, though flawed and conventional to a judicious degree, the execution of its tension and atmosphere proves that Scorsese can handle spooky ground with the best of them. It's not the director's best dramatic work, but it's certainly one of the finer psychological suspense pictures of recent memory.
Amid a foggy opening shot with the emerging mast of a ship coming into view, the story fixes on Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he crosses a ferry with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) over to Shutter Island to investigate a missing person. The missing person is actually an escapee from Ashecliffe Asylum, something like Alcatraz for the insane, who was brought to the island because of her murderous tendencies. In fact, all of the prisoners -- excuse me, patients -- have committed some brash crime, most of them for murder. Teddy and Chuck, after surrendering their fire arms and having an expository chat with asylum head Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) about his practices and regulations, begin to scour the island for clues. What they unearth will test their will, their perception of the truth, and their own sanity, as Teddy begins a downward spiral into instability as visions of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) and his stint in World War II cripple his perception.
Scorsese brings in cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator, Kill Bill) to lens Shutter Island, a wise move since the picture largely swings on its visual aura. The two of them create a dreary look for Lehane's mystery, riddled with rain-drenched sequences and scaled, foreboding shots that emphasize the massive yet finite nature of the intricate island. As they focus on the federal marshalls' interrogations, the photography captures the twitchy electricity brewing in the room as Teddy and Chuck push the buttons of both the inmates and the staff -- creating a cold, unnerving atmosphere. This frigid current only grows deeper as they tunnel into the dark halls and forbidden buildings on the island, rendering an environment that's ripe for mental turmoil for just about anyone who steps off the ferry and into Ashecliffe. That's the springboard for the film's tension, as the picture descends into sinister territory.
It's hard to figure out exactly what category of film Shutter Island fits in because of its usage of a dark sect of human history, maybe offering a taste of horror due to its primitive, lingering fear. Continuing into the '50s when it's set, some mental institutions were still prone to troubling practices (lobotomy, violent experimentation) within their walls, content addressed in both the book and Milos Forman's film adaptation of "One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest". Scorsese expounds on a similarly grim emotional texture as we approach the film's revelations, creating bleakness about the island's many moving, ominous parts -- and about Teddy's real reason for being assigned to this particular missing person's case. He's not unlike McMurphy, the lead character in "One Flew Under the Cockoo's Nest", in that he's quite possibly the only person there that's not either criminally insane or out to keep him shackled to the island, a fact that becomes supremely important as his time there extends.
Much of Shutter Island revolves around Teddy's deteriorating composure as he digs deeper into Ashecliffe, caused by a blend of post-traumatic stress from his time in World War II and the death of his wife, and the focus that Scorsese brings to blending his grasp on the island with the maddening atmosphere is astonishing. DiCaprio offers a stellar performance as the Northeastern-accented Teddy, again proving that he's able to render a man's waning sanity -- much like his turn as Howard Hughes in The Aviator -- with impeccable authenticity. Glimmers of Teddy's experiences at the concentration camp in Dachau flush into frame throughout, which serve a double purpose; along with emphasizing the mental turmoil he's endured, they also help to parallel with the "evil" nature of Ashecliffe Asylum. Similar internalized sequences fail to make straight sense to us, such as a breathtaking, lengthy scene involving Teddy as he embraces his dead, bloody wife amid falling ash, but patience with Scorsese's method proves highly rewarding in this case.
Having patience with Shutter Island's methodically-paced 138-minute runtime shouldn't be a problem, because the marriage between haunting flashbacks, maze-like darkness through Ashecliffe, and the revelatory nature underneath its desolate recesses can be thoroughly mesmerizing -- even if they're foreseeable almost to a fault. It's a movie that's all about mood, not so much about the formulaic activity that it musters from the ashes; Scorsese is a bit of a puppet master as he moves the components of a genre film around, sure, but it's handled to such a finely-tuned, entrancing degree that it doesn't matter. Watching the revelations play out is like reading a thrice-visited classic mystery novel, one where the joy in exploring it comes more in moody prose, interconnecting clues, and distinctive atmosphere instead of being impressed with its bombshell ingenuity.
The big question built within Shutter Island, as the mystery implodes onto itself with fear of Ashecliffe's violent practices and reflection on the demons of Teddy's past, is why Dr. Cawley and his staff -- including overseer Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) -- want to prevent the two Federal Marshalls from leaving. Little clues are scattered throughout that suggest an answer, a familiar one to narratives of this type; naturally, I'll stray from revealing any of the details. However, there's only a marginal slate of predictability to the grand reveal in Scorsese's picture, a lengthy, multifaceted connection of both common and surprising elements that leaves much to pine over once the credits roll. As grim as it might be, I couldn't help myself from pondering all of the moving parts Scorsese put into action, along with whether the answer he offers is really the unequivocal end-all, be-all resolution. When a film proficiently messes with your mind to this degree, long after watching it, you know you're onto something of quality.
Video and Audio:
Shutter Island's cinematography grasps hold of complex, dense coloring and surgical usage of atmospheric textures, lighting, and structural curiosities, and Paramount's 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC encode astounds with its representation of the material. Cinematographer Robert Richardson's palette appears more expounded and balanced than from my memory of the theatrical showing, yet never seeming too heartily saturated or embellished within skin tones or blossoming splashes of color. Shots ratchet through cold, rain-drenched sequences amid the Ashecliffe Asylum's grounds to the haunting warmth within Dr. Cawley's quarters, exercising profuse skill in contrast preservation and textural authenticity. In short, this thing absolutely radiates, preserving the film's look impeccably and offering more than a few handfuls of gawk-worthy sequences. This'll likely hold stream in this reviewer's eyes as one of the best high-definition images of the year.
Every fabric or grain that pops in our vision -- scintillating wood grains, the circles within a spinning record, and the differentiated textiles in all the men's suits and other costume work. One scene that really leaps out with breath-snatching beauty is Teddy's "hallucination" of a conversation he has with Dolores in their apartment, where ashes fall from the ceiling, Michelle Williams' water-soaked hair sleekly conforms to her head, and boundless blistering colors vie for our eye's attention within flushed close-ups and dreamily-colored walls. The visual complexity only grows more intriguing as the film progresses deeper into Ashecliffe, showing off several chilling exterior shots amid jagged rocks and soupy fog-coated patches of grass. All of this arrives in a fashion that never approaches artificiality or any other visual distortion, void of those pesky modern enhancements. In short, Paramount's projection of Shutter Island faultlessly embodies the way it's supposed to look -- supremely moody and visual rich.
Almost as impressive, the matching DTS HD Master Audio track thunders with eerie atmosphere and audaciously crisp dialogue. Several of the sequences in the film do lean towards being front-heavy, especially a conversation between Teddy and Chuck near a chain-link fence. Their chatter remains clear and the rainfall cascades wonderfully, yet the activity doesn't stretch to the rear channels as much as expected. It's only one or two of these scenes that wall off this audio track from earning the same accolades as the visual presentation, because the atmosphere concocted through verbal coarseness, aggressive weather, a swarm of squealing rats, and the "deafening silence" scattered about the film -- especially during the repeated match-lighting sequence in Ward C -- are really something. In the following scene after the duo's aformentioned conversation, as they cross a grassy expanse, the rainfall relentlessly trickles across the entire stage -- the way it does at most points. Thunder rolls across the stage delicately towards the lower-frequency channel and trees crash in the woods aggressively, while the vivacious music powers with boisterous attitude. French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 language tracks are also available, while English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese option subs accompany the film.
Sadly, the only disappointing factor about Paramount's disc comes in the thin amount of supplemental content -- condensed to two featurettes, Behind the Shutters (17:10, HD) and Into the Lighthouse (21:11, HD). Both of these are genetic interview-laden pieces that elaborate on constructing the film and the history behind mental institutions and instability, yet they're both polished and earnest in their context. Dennis Lehane discusses the allegory behind writing his story for 1954 and how he harks to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and "gothic" storytelling, Scorsese gabs about his inability to put the script down, and both actors and psychological professionals discuss the legitimacy behind their mentally-unhinged characters. Also, it's worth noting that both of these pieces contain welcome discussion about the film's central twist, which makes it so they don't have to dance around the reveal in their discussion. However, lacking a commentary, any production sketches, or even a trailer for the film itself could lead someone to assume that a bigger, beefier edition of Scorsese's picture could be on the way.
Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shutter Island might stray from innovation with its construction and storytelling, yet the mastery behind the director's eye and a surprising aptitude in building a genuinely eerie mood concoct it into a stylish, engrossing work. The smoky, rain-trodden atmosphere of Ashecliffe matches well with Scorsese's aesthetic, giving us a chilling little playground as the mystery twines further. Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the cast craft a bundle of nerves within their performances that keeps our attention locked on, especially considering the double-crossing and duality that unfurls as the story progresses. Paramount's Blu-ray, though light in the feet with its supplemental content, presents this visually evocative film in what'll easily stand out as one of this year's crowning achievements. That, along with the exceptional return value in piecing together the clues, creeps up a High Recommendation for Shutter Island.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site