Call me a snob, but in my world you can't call yourself a film buff unless you're a devoted fan of Martin Scorsese's work. Creative, often dazzling, with a keen narrative sense and striking style all his own, Marty makes going to the movies a thrilling, multi-sensory experience. It doesn't matter whether the film hits the bull's-eye or misses its mark; a Scorsese picture always entertains, masterfully merging dynamic visuals with deft subtleties. Among contemporary directors, the man has few peers – Eastwood, perhaps; Ridley Scott, maybe. Yet neither of those elder statesmen attacks the medium with the same brash, boyish enthusiasm as Scorsese. Factor in his pioneering efforts cultivating the noble cause of film preservation, and he's one of the few true-blue industry icons.
Like Howard Hawks before him, Scorsese has put his indelible stamp on a variety of genres, yet never before directed a gothic thriller. With 'Shutter Island,' a riveting if not wholly successful adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, he embraces the form with typical vim and vigor, thrusting his audience into a bizarre world and holding them spellbound for 137 tension-filled minutes. Though the film's trailer tries to paint this macabre mystery as a gruesome horror movie (undoubtedly to lure a younger demographic than the Scorsese norm into the theater), 'Shutter Island' rarely walks down that cheap path. A few mild jolts notwithstanding, the picture instead flaunts an intoxicating elegance that belies its disturbing subject matter and fosters a peculiar fascination in viewers willing to look beyond its surface plot elements. In short, 'Shutter Island' stimulates and teases the very organ that comprises its central focus: the brain.
Set in 1954, amid a climate of suspicion and fear (courtesy of Senator Joseph McCarthy), the film opens with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on a remote New England isle that houses a notorious mental hospital for the criminally insane, a facility where its chief doctor (Ben Kingsley) practices "a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care." A female patient has escaped from the prison-like fortress and roams the desolate island, and it's up to Chuck and Teddy, who is haunted by both the atrocities he witnessed and performed in World War II and a domestic tragedy that occurred after he returned home, to apprehend her. But even as the staff aids their pursuit, it becomes alarmingly apparent something nefarious is going on within the walls of the institution, and the U.S. Marshals may not only be the hunters, but also the hunted.
Divulging much more would soften the impact of the movie, which also touches upon the controversies surrounding various traditional (some would say barbaric) forms of psychiatric treatment that were prevalent at that time and the newfangled pharmaceutical approach more progressive doctors favored. Perception also plays a major role, as Teddy must try to process the unsettling information he uncovers, while battling an array of personal demons that cloud his judgment and toy with his emotions. Shortly after he steps off the boat, Shutter Island gets under Teddy's skin, and as we accompany him on his journey, it worms its way under ours, too.
Detractors have labeled 'Shutter Island' gimmicky and manipulative, which it is to a certain degree, yet such criticisms can only stem from a cursory, surface evaluation of the film. Scorsese pictures, with the possible exception of 'The Departed' and his concert movies, aren't face-value entertainments. Deeper threads run through them, and when one examines and absorbs the nuances on subsequent viewings and relates the story to the artistry of the presentation and intensity of the portrayals, a fuller appreciation of the work invariably develops. 'Shutter Island' is no exception. When I first finished watching the film in the theater, I couldn't wait to view it again so I could better grasp the delicate shadings and connect the myriad dots that clutter the movie's narrative map. I refrained, however, until I received my Blu-ray screener. Having seen it again, I'm now anxious to sit down with it for a third time to drink in even more details. Is the plot far-fetched? Yes, indeed. But how many gothic thrillers are firmly rooted in reality and don't relish playing head games with their audiences?
'Shutter Island' is a movie that's meticulously and purposefully constructed for multiple viewings and intense scrutiny, and almost demands such attention. Scorsese, however, doesn't rely on the screenplay to promote such interest. By creating a seamless string of arresting images and populating his feature with a cast of first-rate actors (Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson among them), he makes us want to revisit and savor individual moments. Whereas some might argue Scorsese went a bit over the top stylistically with 'Cape Fear,' arguably the closest cousin to 'Shutter Island' in the director's film canon, he's careful to keep himself in check here, despite a more outlandish story, and the result is one of the more lyrical thrillers in recent memory. From a purely visual standpoint, 'Shutter Island' is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one that inspires both admiration and delight, even as we're absorbed in the odd happenings on screen.
Performances are superior, too, and in pictures with a paranoid slant, keeping actors from diving off the deep end and helping them make hysteria believable can be tough. DiCaprio may be a tad more mannered than usual (and his Boston accent tends to come and go), but still files a mesmerizing portrayal – intense, emotional, at times gut-wrenchingly raw - and what he's able to dredge up and call upon in so many scenes is nothing short of amazing. Ruffalo complements him well, providing a soothing, sensitive calm, while the distinguished Kingsley and aloof von Sydow elevate the air of unease that permeates the movie while remaining true to their respective characters.
Is 'Shutter Island' one of Scorsese's best films? I certainly wouldn't rank it alongside 'Raging Bull' or 'GoodFellas,' but it shows off the director's enviable gifts quite well. The story isn't on a par with some of Lehane's other works (though the denouement improves upon the original novel), and its structure and devastating components will surely turn off many viewers, but those who appreciate fine moviemaking will not be disappointed. Some will smile upon its conclusion, some will feel cheated, and some will merely scratch their heads, but such diverse reactions are what make this dark, gloomy thriller so intriguing and so worthy of our repeated attention.
Paramount has done 'Shutter Island' proud with an exceptionally well rendered transfer that makes this eerie thriller even more absorbing and immediate than it was in the theater. The spotless source print exhibits no noise, even in dimly lit scenes, yet still maintains a lush, film-like texture, thanks to a faint coating of grain. Contrast and clarity are superb, allowing the image to take on a marvelous dimensionality that heightens impact and suspense. Lines are sharp, but never look enhanced, and background details are among the crispest I've seen, lending the picture spectacular depth. The rocky beachhead is beautifully defined, allowing us to see the nooks and crannies of all the jagged structures, no matter how diminutive or distanced. Delicate beads of rain are also easy to discern, and we can almost feel the coarseness of DiCaprio's omnipresent facial stubble. Close-ups are often breathtaking, sporting plenty of fine detail without appearing overly harsh, and wide shots keep every element in crystalline focus.
Scorsese employs a warm color palette for this period drama, and the hues burst forth with lovely vibrancy. The verdant greens of the hospital estate, yellow floral pattern of Michelle Williams' dress, and dark red blood add splashes of intensity to the stark surroundings, which occasionally flaunt a cool bluish cast that perfectly suits the macabre mood. Black levels are deliciously rich and inky, but never overpower shadow details, and the stunning white shafts of light that intermittently flood the screen during the elongated storm sequence dazzle the senses, blooming just enough to make a visual statement, but never so much that the actors become obscured. Fleshtones are true and natural, too, and remain stable throughout the film.
Best of all, digital doctoring and imperfections are altogether absent in this superior 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort. Paramount deserves kudos for another great transfer, one that Scorsese fans will want to eat with a spoon. Yes, it's that delicious.
At first, I was worried the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track might not be immersive enough for my taste, but such fears were quickly allayed once the action began to shift into high gear. Though the audio may be a little short on multi-channel ambience (except during the stirring thunderstorm/hurricane sequence), it makes up for it in spades with incredible detail and nuance. Just like the video, a terrific crispness pervades the sound scheme, stimulating our senses and plunging us into the on-screen action. From dissonant buzzers and the ignition of light bulbs to branches snapping off trees, gunfire that's visceral in its intensity, bellowing thunder, pelting rain, whistling wind, and the squealing of dozens of rats, the audio pumps forth a range of subtle and bombastic effects that possess astounding purity.
Dynamic range is superior, with even screechy highs resisting distortion. Bass frequencies blend into the track well, providing weighty low end tones that fuel the sinister atmosphere. A few heavy rumbles shake things up, but remain connected to the rest of the audio. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and the various music selections benefit from solid fidelity and pleasing tonal depth. Though directional activity is slim, all the distinct elements combine for a broad, enveloping aural experience that adds immeasurably to the unnerving narrative. Once again, Paramount gets it right.
Only a couple of extras adorn the disc. Why Marty couldn't be convinced to sit down for an audio commentary remains a mystery, but the lack of such a track is a disappointment.
'Shutter Island' is sure to delight, fascinate, frustrate, and rankle audiences (sometimes all at once), but there's much more to this gothic thriller than its controversial narrative structure. Director Martin Scorsese fires on all cylinders, crafting a stunning, immersive production that's deliberately paced, but keeps us engaged and stimulated throughout, while stellar performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and a distinguished cast inject warmth and passion into the eerie atmosphere. Paramount milks every ounce of detail from the film with superb video and audio transfers that bring all the macabre doings to brilliant life. Extras are a bit slim, but home theater enthusiasts will be too captivated by the first-class picture and sound to care. 'Shutter Island' doesn't possess universal appeal, but if you're anything like me, you'll appreciate the considerable artistry on display and just might find yourself booking passage back to this creepy environment more often than originally planned. Recommended.