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Shutter Island Review

Shutter Island
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Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released in 2010

For five decades now, Martin Scorsese has directed some of the finest films of all time. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed are his most notable accomplishments, and his influence has affected filmmaking worldwide. Now, in 2010, Scorsese has released his latest triumph, but any evidence of his signature style is nearly stripped. Shutter Island is a psychological thriller in the vain of The Shining or Memento and even has traces of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Mulholland Drive. The result is a captivating film that will not appeal to the universal audiences Scorsese usually receives but stands as one of his most unique and ambitious accomplishments yet.

Based off the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who has had a lucky streak in Hollywood with this, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River all getting the silver screen treatment), Shutter Island follows a winding narrative structure that does not resolve until the eye-opening conclusion. The beginning synopsis is not that complicated, however:  Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is a federal marshal joined by his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the ominous Shutter Island, a house for the "criminally insane." Located 11 miles into the Boston harbor, the island is overseen by Dr. Cawley, a composed yet freaky Ben Kingsley. He believes that the patients can be cured through attention and a healthy environment rather than heavy doses of drugs. However, Teddy sees through the smokescreen and suspects something else is up. A doctor with possible ties to the Nazis, played by Max von Sydow of The Exorcist fame, and a downright creepy warden, given that aura by Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine, set Teddy off to uncover the truth. Telling much more about the story would venture into spoiler territory but, rest assured, this is a film you will want to see twice. 

Set in 1954, the film quickly becomes a psychological-centered tale once Teddy's mind serves as the stage for much of the action. Teddy is prone to migraines and sea-sickness, and usually recalls his experience as a concentration camp liberator in World War II when he is impaired by these ailments. Disturbing flashbacks of heaps of dead bodies, as well as fresh Nazi corpses, haunt his memories. The increasingly hostile weather on the island serves as a huge obstacle on top of this and the gap between reality and imagination unpredictably widens. The scene atop the cliff is particularly memorable for both serving as a branch in the story as well as a showcase for neat film techniques. Freeze frame images and brisk editing give these scenes a nightmarish quality, a technique more akin to Stanley Kubrick than anything Scorsese has done yet. Even if you are familiar with Scorsese's work, his name will probably not come to mind if you view this film without any knowledge of the forces behind it.

Nonetheless, the directing is the force behind perhaps the legendary director's most distinctive work yet. While not a horror film in the sense of Kubrick's Shining, the unnerving atmosphere and grim images certainly cast a tense aura over the entire story. Marty, to my surprise and petty disappointment, does not include any long, tracking shots a la Goodfellas, a technique that was popularized in Kubrick's aforementioned film 30 years ago. He showed his unparalleled mastery at this form in the classic mobster film, and considering those shots naturally draw suspense, an incorporation of the tracking shot into Shutter Island could have been both a nostalgic homage but, more importantly, the making of a classic thriller scene. Alas, this qualm is very minimal as it only applies to idiosyncratic movie buffs like myself, and the directing overall is stellar. Scorsese has always been able to delve deep into the soul of his characters, forming a personal connection between the viewer and the protagonist. He uses this to his advantage here, but also relies on the provocation of the senses to connect to the viewer. Some excellent sound design accompanies the most harrowing scenes, and, to contrast, beautiful picks by Gustav Mahler and Lou Harrison plant the film in its time during the seemingly "normal" sections. The haunting main theme by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who, ironically, composed the iconic soundtrack for The Shining, guarantees that the final scene will stick in your head for some time.

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The acting is excellent overall, though Leo's performance is getting the most attention. In the beginning he speaks in his imperfect Boston accent, but thankfully his dialect does not remain the focus; his true acting ability does instead. I cannot think of any role that was more complex or nuanced than this one, even including The Aviator, and it may be safe to say that this is his finest achievement yet. He grows convincingly frustrated at the stalemate of an investigation he is presented with, and conveys true loss when needed. Leo is almost never off the screen and, even those who usually dislike his work, will find his presence welcome. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley does what he does best and chews up the scenery. However, this time around it is more urbane than some of his recent work and he is a menacing delight to behold. One line he speaks (and you will know what is upon hearing it) shocks you like cold water but, you have to admit, you love it. John Carroll Lynch, the lovable husband in Fargo but also the suspected serial killer in Zodiac, is the Deputy Warden and convincing as an arrogant authority figure who does not need much more than his word to get work done. He finds himself, funnily enough, in the middle of those two memorable roles, for this film here. Watchmen's Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley, shows his intimidating mug for a tense scene that starts shining a light on the whole story. Finally, Michelle Williams, the talented young actress, plays Teddy's wife in many of the flashbacks and hallucinations. She is excellent as the diaphanous figure of a spouse, especially once the difference between those two types of scenes becomes muddled. All the performances together are superb, though Leo's will be the only one that will be particularly remembered.

If there was one problem I had with Shutter Island more than anything, however, it was its marketing campaign. Simply put, the trailers give away a little too much, as the conflict is not established until a considerable amount of time in. This is not the filmmaker's fault, and the delayed release schedule is most likely to blame. The marketing team had to saturate the public with an amount of revealing promos to draw attention, after all. Nevertheless, this con is separate from the film's quality itself. Shutter Island is, like its setting, insular in Scorsese's catalog. He has not done a thriller of this type or caliber before, and, while it still is a strange offering from the master of high-class, yet accessible films, it is a first-rate offering. The story takes you on a ride that dives, loops and corkscrews until the final scene. Your heart races and you need to catch your breath. But, like any great roller coaster, you cannot wait to get on it again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5