SHUTTER ISLAND - Blu-ray review

...a creepy psychological thriller...short on psychology, characterization, suspense, tension, or thrills.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
TimRaynor's picture

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Tim comment on the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

The Film According to John:
"The law of 4
Who is 67?"

My introduction to 2010's "Shutter Island" was seeing the trailer for it. And since I go out to the movies at least once a week, I saw the trailer more than once. Indeed, the studio's delaying the movie's release date (never a good thing) meant seeing the trailer again and again. The first time I saw it, it looked intriguing because I thought it was a horror movie. Then the director's name flashed on the screen: Martin Scorsese. Was it possible? Scorsese doing a horror flick? That brought conflicting thoughts to mind: Was it good that a master director was doing a horror film (after all, Kubrick had done it with "The Shining"), or did it seem just a trifle demeaning for a great director to be working in a genre too often reserved for less-than-great filmmakers?

Well, it turned out that "Shutter Island" was not really a horror film. It's more of a creepy psychological thriller. But it sure does a passable imitation of a standard-issue horror film in a lot of respects. One of those standard respects, however, is definitely not in the technical department. Scorsese shapes a film like few other directors working today, and his expertise shows up in every frame. What he leaves us with, though, is the sense of an exemplary craftsman, a master storyteller, working with a less-than-exemplary story, in this case a screenplay based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane ("Gone, Baby, Gone," "Mystic River"), and coming up with a less-than-masterly movie, short on psychology, characterization, suspense, tension, or thrills.

Still, watching a master at work may be all you need.

The story begins in 1954 with two cops, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), ferrying to Shutter Island, the rocky, isolated location for Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution, to find an escaped inmate. Ashecliffe takes in only the most-dangerous mental patients, and there is no way on or off the island except by the one ferry that Teddy and Chuck arrive on. When we see the hospital in the distance, we know it's menacing because Scorsese cranks up the deep, dark, ominous music. It may be a corny touch, but it's our first clue that the master director is going to give us a gothic thriller for all it's worth.

How creepy is the hospital? An old Civil War fort serves as the ward containing the most-violent inmates. What do you mean, Will our heroes be poking around the dankest recesses of the place before long? What's more, there's a lighthouse on the island that's off limits to everybody. You think that's going to play a part in the story? And how about the house that Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital, lives in. It's an old Civil War mansion. What's with the Civil War here? Yeah, well, everything's old, including Dr. Cawley's associate, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), an old German psychiatrist.

Needless to say, true to horror-movie tradition (but, remember, this is not a horror movie; it's a creepy, psychological, gothic thriller), a storm hits the island, knocking out all the power, cutting off all communications with the mainland, and stranding everyone on the rock. If they had cell phones in 1954, presumably they would be out, too.

Next, the music of Gustav Mahler triggers memories in Teddy, memories first of his experiences in World War II freeing the concentration camp at Dachau and memories second of his wife, killed in a fire at his home. After that, Teddy learns that the escaped prisoner they're after may not have escaped at all, and the more he digs around, the more weirdness he uncovers.

Scorsese does almost everything right in setting the scene, working with only the best people on the picture. Production designer Dante Ferretti creates some wonderfully atmospheric set designs. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker keeps the pace moving at a healthy clip. And the details of acting, lighting, photography, camera work, music, period costumes and furniture, color schemes, flashbacks, and the like are essentially all praiseworthy.

The culmination of all this expert filmmaking is to make us wonder just what the heck is going on and why. Does someone or some thing haunt Ashecliffe? Is the government using the hospital for secret testing? Does the facility conduct arcane experiments on people? Is the institution part of a vast, covert conspiracy? Could Nazis or Satanists be involved? Can Teddy trust his partner? Who are Laeddis and Noece and Dolores and Rachel? What's with the lighthouse? Is Teddy losing his mind?

And why are so many famous actors and actresses involved in the project? Not only the big names I've already mentioned, but Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Jackie Earl Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, and Elias Koteas.

There is no doubt Scorsese creates a series of brilliant scenes. The problem is that by the time the movie is over, one realizes it doesn't add up to much. The movie leaves one feeling empty, wanting, yet it's not entirely Scorsese's fault (except for his choosing to make the film in the first place). While he does what he can with Lehane's source material, the result is all style and little substance.

Related problems: The film goes on far too long at well over two hours. The denouement, the final resolution of the mystery, is but one of the elements too drawn out. Moreover, there's the issue of female profanity in the film. There aren't many women in the story, but each of them has an F-bomb to unload. Really? Sure, it was "the word that won the War," but even a decade later in 1954 I don't think many women used it as casually as it's used by women in this movie.

No, "Shutter Island" in the end fails to impress. It's all skillful technique at the expense of having little really worthwhile or original to say. It's Scorsese the craftsman putting his considerable skills to work on a dubious project, as though he did for a lark.

John's film rating: 6/10

The Film According to Tim:
With "Shutter Island" director Martin Scorsese is back in full force to deliver an atmospheric thriller intertwined with a dark, sinister tale. Scorsese takes Laeta Kalogridis's screenplay of Dennis Lehane's novel and makes a valiant effort trying to bring the story to life. However, while I enjoyed Scorsese's camera work and his setting up of a haunting mood, it just never felt like a trademark Martin Scorsese film to me. No, the style here is more along the lines of films like "The Sixth Sense" or "The Others"; meaning, you should expect a twist at the end. Unfortunately for me, I had the twist figured out way too early and it made the movie feel like one big ending that dragged on into eternity.

The story is set in 1954, as a U.S. Marshall named Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of an insane-asylum patient, Rachel (Emily Mortimer). The strange thing is that the patient vanished from an asylum known as Shutter Island, located several miles off of the coast of Boston. Therefore, how could the patient completely vanish from an island, let alone escape the asylum in the first place? The only way to get to the island is by ferryboat, which we soon find out the asylum has complete control of. Of course, this is part of setting up the tone of why nobody ever gets off the island.

Teddy and Chuck meet with the two heads of the facility, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), to begin investigating Rachel's disappearance. So, here we are with a disappearance mystery all set up; but then we begin to realize the narrative is actually driven around the main character, Teddy Daniels. Teddy comes across as a very intelligent yet very defensive detective, full of arrogant conviction. During his investigation, Daniels constantly has flashbacks of fighting in Germany during World War II and vivid dreams of his deceased wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). As he has these visions, they seem to tear at his sanity and lead him toward a path of darkness. Keep in mind, this is a shift in assumed narrative that happens quite early in the film. What we think of as the investigation of a disappearance quickly turns into a character study with a dark, bottled up background.

The asylum itself is set up to have a personality of its own. For a mental hospital, it is guarded by fully armed security guards who are better suited for a high-security penitentiary. We even get to see Ted Levine (of "Silence of the Lambs" fame) play a small part as the Warden, but at no time does he make any kind of reference to placing the lotion in the basket. Teddy and Chuck even question the need for such high security at a mental hospital, but they find out soon enough that the asylum is full of some of the most viciously insane people known to society. The insane here are not only an extreme danger to other people, they are also a danger to themselves. Of course, rumors of vulgar treatment done to the inmates abound, but Dr. Cawley obviously denies them.

As the story unfolds there are only more layers that get exposed, thus leading you to question every detail: What are the true natures and backgrounds of Doctors Cawley and Naehring? Did the patient Rachel ever exist, or was she fabricated by the two doctors? And what do Teddy's flashbacks of World War II and liberating concentration camps in Germany have to do with anything? What we have is what we expect in any mystery thriller, and that is to leave the audience questioning everything. However, if you're like me, you'll have it figured out within the first thirty minutes. In fact, once you see that the focus of the narrative veers from the initial setup, it is way too obvious where it all ends up.

The Good:
The performances are quite acceptable. While I still have a hard time finding DiCaprio convincing as an actor, he nails his character quite well. As expected, we can also always count on excellent performances from Kingsley and Sydow, and they upstage DiCaprio at practically every turn. Of all the actors, I found Kingsley's performance my favorite, as I found him the most convincing.

Overall, the photography and mood of the film stand out quite well. At times you feel like you're watching an old classic thriller from the golden age of cinema, as Scorsese is exceptional at getting those camera shots that have that kind of impact. The tone and atmosphere are geared to deliver a character of their own, and it is the one thing the movie pulls off in flying colors.

The Bad:
The pacing can be quite dull at times, and I sometimes felt the need to nod off. Even the soundtrack seems to be misplaced in scenes where it's unnecessary, and the editing looks a little clunky at times. While I found the performances outstanding, I just didn't feel the connection with the main character, Teddy, nor did I feel the need to care. Plus, if you do figure out the outcome too early, as I did, then the movie feels like one big third act that drags on forever. When we finally get to the end, it is quite disturbing, but if you already have it figured out, the impact is no more than a soft punch to the arm.

The Ugly:
We see a few moments of blood and some patients with very bad dental-hygiene issues. At least Scorsese didn't go for the cliché of showing worms crawling around in the asylum cafeteria food. Nevertheless, there are a few gruesome parts and some graphic violence, but, again, we expect them in a film of this nature. All the same, what ugliness the film has does not dominate it and blends in seamlessly.

While I felt the mood of "Shutter Island" was in the right place and the efforts made with the camera looked outstanding, I never found that trademark style I'm used to with a Martin Scorsese film. Seriously, it felt as if anyone could have directed it, not to mention it's as if the director took the narrative route of an M. Night Shyamalan script. The film certainly looks well crafted, but even so, I found it slow and tedious with little to offer in the end. Well, let's just say, you see the ending coming a mile away, and when you know that, it makes the rest of the movie a dreary ride.

Tim's film rating: 6/10

The Paramount video engineers did a fine job transferring the movie to Blu-ray disc using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 codec. The picture looks beautifully detailed, with crisp delineation and enough natural film grain to provide a realistic texture to the image. There are good, lifelike colors, too, with especially truthful facial tones, deep blacks and greens, and rich reds. The PQ is the best part of the production.

We find the soundtrack reproduced via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and it is also quite good. There is strong impact from the outset, with a wide dynamic range and deep bass. The surround sound appears limited, however, to some musical ambient bloom, a little rain, and a few rolls of thunder. The noises are fairly light and subtle in the side and rear channels, although they come more to life as the film goes along.

The major extras are two featurettes, both in high definition. The first, "Behind the Shutters," is seventeen minutes long and takes us behind the scenes with the director, the cast, and some of the crew, who comment on the background of the story and its filming. Beware, however, that it contains spoilers. Watch it only after you've seen the movie. The second featurette is "Into the Lighthouse," a twenty-one-minute extension of the first featurette, this time with the actors and filmmakers reflecting on their roles in the movie and the era in which the writer set the story.

The extras conclude with twenty scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
If our reviews seem a little harsh, you have to remember that both Tim and I were looking at "Shutter Island" as a Martin Scorsese film. A person expects a little more from Scorsese as one of the world's most-important, Oscar-winning directors, and when one of his films doesn't come through as strongly as it might, a person understandably gets a bit more critical about it. The Wife-O-Meter probably put it best when she had finished watching it and said, "Is that all there is?" She wasn't overly keen on the loud, threatening music that kept popping up at melodramatic moments, either.

"Shutter Island" isn't a bad film, per se, just a disappointing one, a film leaving a person having wanted something a little more.


Film Value