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Shutter Island (Blu-ray Review)

7 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/8/10
Box Office $127.8 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for disturbing violent content, language and violence.
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer.

Given the dreadful artistic state of pre-November Hollywood releases over the past decade (at least), what can one say when the year-to-date’s most impressively crafted major studio movie hand’s down was regarded by not a few as a mild disappointment?

This would be Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s period mystery about all kinds of mental instability — which to my mind is more impressively rendered on screen than Clint Eastwood’s take on Lahane’s Mystic River, though maybe not up to director Ben Affleck’s praised yet still underrated movie of the author’s Gone Baby Gone.

By the highest standards (which is as good a term as any to describe Scorsese’s career), I suppose one can argue that Island’s whodunit origins do contribute to a frittering away of valuable time in a career that can’t have an infinite number of entries left. But it’s an impressive pro job with bull’s-eye performances and masterful cinematography by the great Robert Richardson — who, had the movie come out last fall as originally planned, would have been able to claim Inglourious Basterds and this in the same year. The home version’s two spoilers-packed supplements (one a little under and one a little over 20 minutes) emphasize just how complex the story really is and how Scorsese & Co. had to work just as hard on how the movie would play on second and third viewings.  

The year is 1954, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Teddy” character has already experienced enough tragedy to betray the chirpy sound of his name. A U.S. Marshal, he’s introduced to us on a forebodingly foggy boat trip to an island-based asylum that dates back to Civil War days — accompanied by a new partner played by Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose lower-key style plays effectively off the histrionics Leo will be asked to perform in nearly two-and-a-half-hours of the heaviest big-screen lifting in a while. Their mission is to figure out how a patient (Emily Mortimer) who must be the kid sister of Harry Houdini disappeared from a small cell under impossible high-security circumstances.

At this point, it’s no fair telling very much more about the story — though I’m definitely one of those who thinks the movie is just as compelling if you know the what’s going to happen (for starters, it’s not as if the novel didn’t and doesn’t have a popular following). And by the way, the movie improves on Lahane’s very respectable book — especially with the ending.

But it’s true that after a grabber of a set-up, Island is no lickety-split screen affair — indulging in a lot of set pieces (more sturdy than not) for an array of good actors: Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley and Michelle Williams, all in support of DiCaprio. If the last jacked up the intensity level of his performance one more iota, the result might be risible. But it’s a role that we eventually comes to see necessitating the utmost in emotional despair, and here the actor is working with a director (for the fourth time) who knows everything about calibration.

When Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear came out in 1991, a film critic who was and is one of the best and most visible conveyed to me a combination of chagrin and amusement in noting the film’s somewhat patronizing reception by certain professional peers. Had the exact same movie been credited to some recent film school Turk attempting his breakout project, he noted, reviewers would have fallen all over themselves in praising it. Amen.

I only bring this up because I know more than one person who elected not to see Shutter Island because they “heard it wasn’t very good.” Actually, it got a 68% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which is pretty strong on the 2010 year — at least for a movie with real production values — if you don’t count the 98% awarded to the comparably milder How To Train Your Dragon (gee, who was Mr./Ms. 2% Sourpuss there)? But I prefer Island because it wrung me out in the good way as opposed to the bad (think modern gruellers like Che, The Da Vinci Code or anything with “Madea” in the title).

A commentary would have been nice, but Scorsese has as much as President Obama on his plate these days when you look at the litany of his future projects (say, where is that George Harrison documentary?). But the DVD/Blu-ray extras we get are better than the usual boilerplate: We really do get a sense of what the director and cast were trying to do here plus a lot of insights to where psychiatry was in 1954 — a crossroads year that heavily influenced Lahane’s choice of just when to set his story.


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