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SHUTTER ISLAND is an about-face for Scorsese


Martin Scorsese likes horror-mystery-thrillers, but I don't think he likes what they have become. Shutter Island, his stab at the genre, has the foreboding music and jump cuts of a traditional horror film, but sticks to its mystery for its thrills. You won't find big-budget action sequences or slow-motion fight scenes in Scorsese's epic. Instead, he looks back toward Hitchcock and other pioneers of the genre to re-teach, and perhaps re-learn, the art of good horror. His experiment is a success, for the most part, though he mutes his own style in the process. 

The story goes something like this: it's 1954. Teddy Daniels, played by Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio, is a U.S. Marshal assigned to investigate a missing patient on Shutter Island, an old prison island off the coast of Boston that's been converted into a hospital for the criminally insane. The woman he's looking for was put on the island after drowning her children in a lake. Teddy has been pining for an assignment to the island. He's heard horror stories of unethical and illegal experiments performed on patients by the hospital staff, lead by Dr. Cawley (played by Ben Kingsley). As his investigation progresses, Teddy begins to wonder if the staff is playing twisted games with his head as well.

I won't tell you any more, but even in its opening moments, Scorsese makes it clear that he intends to keep us on our toes. As Teddy and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) approach Shutter Island on a barge, the director uses uncomfortable jump cuts, perplexing camera angles, and long aerial shots to foreshadow the looming danger of the facility.

The music, under the direction of longtime Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson, is filled with dissonant and deep walls of sound that crash into the ears like a wave to a rocky shore. In an interview with, Scorsese and Robertson describe the music as "bold," noting their use of modern classical musicians to create a stark, hauntingly repetitious score that amplifies the film's atmosphere of dread. This is a notable departure from the norm for Scorsese, who almost always uses a mix of classic rock songs in lieu of orchestrated compositions.

I can understand why Paramount delayed Shutter Island from October to February. This is not an Oscar contender. It's a film that will polarize audiences. Some will love it; some will just think it's too weird; others will think Scorsese has finally jumped the shark. I lie somewhere in the middle. While parts of Teddy's journey feel rushed and messy, I sense a deeper ambition from the director. Shutter Island is not a typical effort, it's him branching out and showing us a real mystery-horror film, like those we used to see from directors like Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, etc) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist). There are plenty of thrills, and even an explosion or two, but Shutter Island is not the typical violent, horror film that we expect to see these days. Instead, Scorsese has crafted a psychological drama that happens to contain many haunting, shocking, and thrilling moments.

Shutter Island is a true venture into the mind of Teddy Daniels. We wonder why he is having visions and seeing ghosts, just as he does. This is the type of movie that shouldn't make us happy or feel pleasant to watch. Like a great Hitchcock film, however, Scorsese ties his plot together in the end. He explains his mystery when the time is right and leaves no vital plot threads to fray. This is, in part, thanks to great performances from DiCaprio and Kingsley, along with Michelle Williams, who pull the complex plot together in a superb confrontation that gives Shutter Island the emotional payoff it needs. 

If you can stand a lot of strange flashbacks and hallucinations, and aren't bothered by not knowing what's going on for a while, you won't hate Shutter Island. If you're in the mood for a psychological drama willing to intrude on your sense of comfort and play by its own rules, you may really like Shutter Island. If you're looking for the next My Bloody Valentine 3D, move along.

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