Shutter Island


The Shutter Island Japanese one-sheet

BOSTON, 1954. At the height of the Cold War, two US Marshals are called to a mental hospital for the “criminally insane” on the titular island off the coast of Massachusetts to help locate a missing patient—a multiple murderess who somehow escaped from a completely sealed, locked room. One of the Marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a war veteran trying to get off the sauce, starts suffering migraines and hallucinations, and is plagued by flashbacks to the liberation of Dachau—while a ferocious storm approaches the isolated, windswept island like an H-bomb about to drop at any minute. As he and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappeared woman, they uncover ever more disturbing goings-on at the facility: experimental medical procedures, cover-ups, a disinterested, malicious staff and a dictatorial head doctor—made all the more eerie by the fact that the facility is funded by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The film, Martin Scorsese’s latest—and his finest fiction film since Bringing Out The Dead—is based on a 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novels on which Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River are based. It marks the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, the others being The Aviator, The Departed and Gangs of New York. Scorsese’s genius here is in creating an instantly chilling, tense atmosphere, both visually and sonically: he enlisted Robbie Robertson of The Band—whom he met while filming The Last Waltz in 1978—to select modern classical pieces for the film, à la Kubrick’s selections for Barry Lyndon and The Shining—even down to the use of a piece by György Ligeti. From the stabby piano of John Cage’s Root of an Unfocus to the churning strings and siren-like horns of Krzysztof Penderecki’s third symphony, to the incomparable, darkly haunting beauty of a piece like Max Richter’s On The Nature Of Daylight, Robertson’s choices fit astoundingly well. There’s a tremendous WWII-flashback sequence that makes excellent use of Mahler’s Piano and String Quartet in A minor, and ambient pioneer Brian Eno is featured alongside composers John Adams and Ingram Marshall.

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While Scorsese’s flashy camerawork occasionally gets away from him, overshadowing the narrative, it’s instrumental—along with the music—in creating the film’s frequently claustrophobic, oftentimes brilliantly schizophrenic climate. References to other films abound: to Hitchcock, Polanski, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and to some of the great films noirs, and it’s no surprise to learn that the director screened Out of the Past, Laura and Vertigo—films about detectives hunting elusive, mentally disturbed women—among others, to his cast. The film is expertly photographed by Robert Richardson, whose previous credits include Oliver Stone’s JFK and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duet and Inglourious Basterds. A hyper-real flashback sequence, all ramped-up contrast and beautifully saturated day-glo colours—far more stunning than anything in James Cameron’s Avatar—is a sight to behold. A truly stellar supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas—whom some say was cast simply for his passing resemblance to Scorsese regular Robert de Niro—takes the film to near-masterpiece levels.

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In short, Shutter Island is a beautiful thrill ride: it’s The Prisoner meets The Island of Doctor Moreau—except the monsters on this island are far more ‘mental’.

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