Review: Shutter Island

What’s Good: Scorsese’s best film since “Bringing Out the Dead.” A solid screenplay adaptation remains undaunted by an overbearing director and overwrought actor. I also like how this period movie does not contain the usual period music that Scorsese has a tendency to punish us with. Also, I  must say that seeing actors Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer and Elias Koteas in a Martin Scorsese film for the first time is a real treat–see Marty, there are actually some good actors around who weren’t in “Titanic.”    
What’s Not: Even overrated directors and actors can make a good movie every now and again.
Fake Peter Travis Blurb: More twists and turns than my small intestine. Martin Scorsese is the best director who ever walked the ear, I want to blow him, um, a kiss. This one’s a real grabber!

With “Shutter Island” Martin Scorsese’s influences coming from a number of different places and thankfully none of them have anything to do with organized crime. Let’s start with the period of movies in which this one is set, the early 50s. This is an insane asylum mystery with all the subtlety of, well, an insane  asylum. Asking the much asked question: “it the patients who are crazy or the system that contains them?” the great Sam Fuller movie “Shock Corridor” came to my mind a lot but probably a dozen more came to Scorsese’s with Hitchcock, of course, begin a clear favorite. One influence that Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen or intended is a palpably empathetic horror aesthetic that plays out like a Hollywood version of the survival horror video game “Silent Hill” with a closely identified character walking down long corridors while people in straight jackets jump out to say “boo!” Another noticeable and random influence comes from the “dark” Spielberg epoch that gave us a ton of crappy films like “Saving Private Ryan” (both share a WWII theme), “Minority Report” (ditto, noir) with a commonality of dead children in all. Like Spielberg’s war and mystery works, “Shutter Island” is a big booming melodramatic murder mystery with vibrant colors penetrating the beautifully bleached cinematography. Unlike Spielberg though Scorsese it too smart to let emotion get the better of him or his characters. Instead, he allows emotion to consume them. The final big influence on Scorsese seems to be Scorsese himself, specifically the frantic “Cape Fear” Scorsese full of anger and pessimism and crazy people and big storms whose godly power puts pithy earthlings in their place until the story is told.

Scorsese seems to work better when he’s not making the kind of movie that he thinks we expect him to make. The god awful “Departed,” “Gangs of New York” and even (don’t hate me, but…) “Goodfellas” are examples of a smart director who is able to channel a lot of creative energy into films that are basically second-hand crime stories that add nothing to the genre except for a fun but ultimately empty sense of misplaced manic energy. “Shutter Island” is not that Scorsese. But that does not meant that it fits with the other Scorsese who stumbled upon his best work in years with “The Aviator” (which turns out to be not even that good in retrospect). Like the protagonist that haunts the shadowy, light flickery institutional corridors, this film exists in-between worlds without ever seeming to belong. Gotta love limbo.

The film features Leonardo DiCaprio in yet another one of his tightly wound performances. As a bonus he even reprises that silly Boston accent from “Depaaaaaaaateeeeeeed.” At least he’s not playing a South African again. Leo is an odd actor to assess because his selection in roles far surpasses his ability in said roles. After “Titanic” Leonardo became a huge name but even then few really thought he was super talented, especially when he followed “Titanic” up with “The Beach” (between those two, it’s no wonder he gets sea sick in “Shutter Island’s” opening scene). Then something happened. He made “Gangs of New York” with Scorsese. That’s all it took. Really?! People instantly started taking him seriously even though he did nothing to prove why we should. In fact, “Gangs” was proof of the opposite as even fans didn’t love him in that (it didn’t help that he was standing next to Daniel Day Lewis). In all of his subsequent films with Scorsese (or Ridley Scott or Woody Allen or Ed Zwick or Sam Mendes etc.) I never understood what either saw in each other because neither brings out the best in the other. This is the one of the most dull actor/director duos of all time, ranking just above the Stephen Sommers/Kevin J. O’Connor powerhouse that yield, to this day, gems like “The Mummy,” “Deep Rising” and “G.I. Joe.” My only guess is that Scorsese became blinded by the school girl allure of Leo (not Leonardo, just Leo) and thus wanted to forge him into his very own De Niro and, like a fluttery eyed ingénue, Leo, in turn, did his best to impress this “genus” and he was smart to do so. The fact remains that DiCpario finds himself miscast in, oh, just about every film he’s ever been in. Okay, “Catch Me if You Can” (Spielberg of course) and “Titanic” used the naughty/clean boy act right and “Shutter Island” might be lucky number three except that’s not a lucky number at all.

Putting the mystery of DiCaprio’s esteemed career aside, there are a lot of fun twists in this mystery, so much so that many people who saw it last weekend fully expected to see ghosts. And maybe they did. Either way, by the end we see how Leo’s performance actually makes a lot of sense given the context he is placed in which I won’t spoil. Aside from a lot of really embarrassing interrogation scenes (DiCaprio is never worse than when he projects disdain for another character), this is a “good” Leo performance if only because it’s the sort of overwrought, shaky-hand and intense-all-the-time performances that the film absolutely needed in order to work and is thus is able to work him into the narrative web rather than the other way around as is usually the case.

The story is not going to win any awards but this is not that kind of movie. Hum, come to think of it “The Departed” also was not intended to be but that didn’t stop people from heaping praise upon it as if it were the last time they were ever going to get to do so with Scorsese. Everything we see in this movie exists through the dark ringed eyes of the protagonist, a U.S. Marshal, and if you follow the logic of his encounter with this strange Island and it’s secret holding overseers (Ben Kingsley is particularly good as a very calm and modern Freudian psychiatrist that rejects the harsh old ways of treatment… or does he?) may be far fetched if you think about it but it holds up much better than it has any right to–or, at least, it holds up as much as one can say it holds up having seen it only once. The plot, about a man looking for lost things on this island (yes, I’m being deliberately vague), does a remarkable job at keeping us and it’s character in the moment (Laeta Kalogridis should be commended for adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) without ever getting wearing out its welcome. Sure it strings us along but does it so well enough that we want to go along.

“Shutter Island” is particularly adept at reinventing itself at the end of ever act. Not only does the primary mystery get solved half way through but the final twist, an epic though not terribly original role reversal, is not only a whopper but a whopper that’s actually grounded in reality. Granted it’s a dour Lehanian reality, but still. It’s not great art, it’s just good pulp. If there is a flaw it is not that Scorsese is aiming low but that he’s so damn obvious about how low he’s aiming as if he wants points for not being high brow. But is he ever really high brow? Scorsese wants us to know with every twist and turn of the camera and every sharp musical chord that pounds away at our heads like one of Leo’s migraines, is that he’s in on the spooky fun.

“Shutter Island” is a good mystery movie if you can forget that Scorsese approaches it as such a deliberate mystery movie. In the fuck-with-your-head genre, it’s too forced to appreciate in the say way as a David Fincher mystery like “The Game” or Michael Heneke’s “Cache” but I’m not dumb enough to expect more from this project or director than either are capable of delivering. I would be foolish and even lying if I said the end product isn’t totally enjoyable while it’s unfolding. It’s a B-movie in every sense of the word including…

Grade: B

Oscar Reactions in Smilies

On the Spot Reaction: Man, what a forgetful year for Oscar nominations. Not bad overall but I’m just not seeing anything terribly important. A few of genuinely good films made the cut (Basterds, Hurt Locker, The Messenger, A Single Man), a few of nice but not earth shattering filler picks (Precious… which, okay, I kinda liked), a ton of tepid offferings (Nine, Up, Invictus) and, of course, crap (Blind Side, Up in the Air). Sadly, no big surprises other than the fact that two sci-fi films were nominated for best picture by an industry that historically can’t even bother to recognize any at all; the down side is that the lauded sci-fi films are as heavy handed as they are overrated. I gave both a passing grade though so how much can I really complain? What I can complain about is the biggest shut-outs, The Road and Two Lovers which I though could at the very least grab a few noms like Screenplay or Cinematography.  And don’t even get me started on Miyazaki’s animated Ponyo which was overlooked. Overall, though, not a bad Oscar year, just not a very compelling one.   

Best Picture (I got 9 of 10 perdictions right)

“Avatar” James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers 🙄 😐
“The Blind Side” Nominees to be determined 😥 😡 😥 👿
“District 9” Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, Producers 😯
“An Education” Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers 🙁
“The Hurt Locker” Nominees to be determined 😀
“Inglourious Basterds” Lawrence Bender, Producer 🙂 😀 😀
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, Producers 😐
“A Serious Man” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Producers 😀
“Up” Jonas Rivera, Producer 🙄 🙁 😥
“Up in the Air” Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, Producers 🙁 😡 😥 😡 (papa Ivan’s first ever nom!)

Robbed: Almost every other movie released last year are better than these ten. What a lame year to have this beefed up category. Best Pic Nominee Blind Side, okay fuck you too.


* “Avatar” James Cameron 🙄
* “The Hurt Locker” Kathryn Bigelow 😀
* “Inglourious Basterds” Quentin Tarantino 😀
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Lee Daniels 😐
* “Up in the Air” Jason Reitman 🙁 😡 😥

Robbed: Coen Bros., right?  

Actor in a Leading Role

* Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” 😎
* George Clooney in “Up in the Air” 🙁 (and I usually love the Cloonster)
* Colin Firth in “A Single Man” 😀
* Morgan Freeman in “Invictus” 🙄 😐
* Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” 😀

Robbed:Viggo Mortensen, Viggo, Viggo, Viggo.  

Actor in a Supporting Role

* Matt Damon in “Invictus” 🙄
* Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger” 😀
* Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station” 😀
* Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones” (first ever Oscar nom for someone doing a Dr. Evil impression lol)
* Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” 😀

Robbed: Steven Lang, the bad guy from Avatar. Dude’s the shit in that otherwise lame movie.

Actress in a Leading Role

* Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” 🙁 😡 😡 😥 😡 😥 😡 👿
* Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
* Carey Mulligan in “An Education” 🙁
* Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” 🙂
* Meryl Streep in “Julie & Julia” 🙂

Robbed:Might as well have nominated Sandra Bullock for All About Steve cuz she’s such a good actress.

Actress in a Supporting Role

* Penélope Cruz in “Nine” 🙁
* Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air” 😐
* Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart” 😯
* Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air” 🙁 😡 😥
* Mo’Nique in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” 🙄

Robbed: I would say Moore from Single Man but she was in it for like ten minutes so Samantha Morton from The Messenger it is.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

* “District 9” Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
* “An Education” Screenplay by Nick Hornby 🙁
* “In the Loop” Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche 😀
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
* “Up in the Air” Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner 😡 😡

Robbed: The Road

Writing (Original Screenplay)

* “The Hurt Locker” Written by Mark Boal
* “Inglourious Basterds” Written by Quentin Tarantino 😀
* “The Messenger” Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman 🙂
* “A Serious Man” Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen 😀
* “Up” Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy 😡 😡

Robbed: Sure, a lot of good scripts were robbed but for the first time in years I like the Original Screenplay category for the most part. The sloppy, haphazard writing/plotting of Up is the only exception.  

Animated Feature Film

* “Coraline” Henry Selick 🙂
* “Fantastic Mr. Fox” Wes Anderson 🙂
* “The Princess and the Frog” John Musker and Ron Clements 🙄
* “The Secret of Kells” Tomm Moore 😯
* “Up” Pete Docter 🙄 🙁 😥



* “Avatar” Mauro Fiore 🙄
* “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” Bruno Delbonnel 😯 🙂
* “The Hurt Locker” Barry Ackroyd 😀
* “Inglourious Basterds” Robert Richardson 😀
* “The White Ribbon” Christian Berger 😀

 Robbed: White Ribbon. Oh, wait they actually bothered to watch that movie. Cool!

Art Direction

* “Avatar” Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Kim Sinclair
* “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Art Direction: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro; Set Decoration: Caroline Smith 😀
* “Nine” Art Direction: John Myhre; Set Decoration: Gordon Sim
* “Sherlock Holmes” Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer 🙂
* “The Young Victoria” Art Direction: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Maggie Gray 😐

Costume Design

* “Bright Star” Janet Patterson 😐
* “Coco before Chanel” Catherine Leterrier 😐
* “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Monique Prudhomme 🙂
* “Nine” Colleen Atwood
* “The Young Victoria” Sandy Powell 😐

Documentary (Feature)

* “Burma VJ” Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller 😐
* “The Cove” Nominees to be determined
* “Food, Inc.” Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
* “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith 😐
* “Which Way Home” Rebecca Cammisa 😐

Film Editing

* “Avatar” Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron 🙄
* “District 9” Julian Clarke
* “The Hurt Locker” Bob Murawski and Chris Innis
* “Inglourious Basterds” Sally Menke 😀
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Joe Klotz 😐

Foreign Language Film

* “Ajami” Israel 😐
* “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” Argentina 😐
* “The Milk of Sorrow” Peru 😐
* “Un Prophète” France 🙂
* “The White Ribbon” Germany 😀


* “Il Divo” Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano 😯
* “Star Trek” Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow
* “The Young Victoria” Jon Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore 😐 (huh?)

Music (Original Score)

* “Avatar” James Horner 😡 😡 😥 😡 😡 😥 😡 😡 😡
* “Fantastic Mr. Fox” Alexandre Desplat 😯 😀
* “The Hurt Locker” Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders (wha?)
* “Sherlock Holmes” Hans Zimmer 😀 😀
* “Up” Michael Giacchino 🙁 😡

Music (Original Song)

* “Almost There” from “The Princess and the Frog” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman 😐
* “Down in New Orleans” from “The Princess and the Frog” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman 😐
* “Loin de Paname” from “Paris 36” Music by Reinhardt Wagner Lyric by Frank Thomas 😐
* “Take It All” from “Nine” Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston 😐
* “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from “Crazy Heart” Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett 😐

Short Film (Animated)

* “French Roast” Fabrice O. Joubert
* “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” Nicky Phelan and Darragh O’Connell
* “The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)” Javier Recio Gracia
* “Logorama” Nicolas Schmerkin
* “A Matter of Loaf and Death” Nick Park

Documentary (Short Subject)

* “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
* “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher
* “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
* “Music by Prudence” Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett
* “Rabbit à la Berlin” Bartek Konopka and Anna Wydra

Short Film (Live Action)

* “The Door” Juanita Wilson and James Flynn
* “Instead of Abracadabra” Patrik Eklund and Mathias Fjellström
* “Kavi” Gregg Helvey
* “Miracle Fish” Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey
* “The New Tenants” Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson

Sound Editing

* “Avatar” Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
* “The Hurt Locker” Paul N.J. Ottosson
* “Inglourious Basterds” Wylie Stateman 🙂
* “Star Trek” Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin
* “Up” Michael Silvers and Tom Myers

Sound Mixing

* “Avatar” Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson
* “The Hurt Locker” Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett
* “Inglourious Basterds” Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano 🙂 (wow, another sound nod for IG. Werid, cuz most of the film is very low key)
* “Star Trek” Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson and Peter J. Devlin
* “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson 🙂 (no kidding, the sound is fantastic in this, um, less than fantastic film)

Visual Effects

* “Avatar” Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones
* “District 9” Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros and Matt Aitken
* “Star Trek” Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh and Burt Dalton

Best Picture Predictions


  • Avatar
  • An Education
  • District 9
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Invictus
  • Precious
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air

Sad that the year the Academy decides to implement it’s ten picture category is a year where 10 Oscar-y films are actually hard to come by. My reasoning: in what other year would a film like Star Trek be a contender (I still don’t think it would make it because three sci-fi best pic nominees is a stretch because the Academy doesn’t even usually go for one. I would even say that even if it were just five, there’s still aren’t enough films! The locks are of course Avatar (or as it’s more fun to say “Aaavadar”), Hurt Locker, Basterds, Precious and Up in the Air.  The rest is totally filler. Also, I’m not going to bother predicting acting/writing etc awards because I don’t see any surprises. I hope I’m wrong.

Possible: Star Trek (what?! WHAT!!!), The Hangover, Julie and Julia, The Blind Side. Damn.

Hoping for: Well, only three of seven probable nominees are any good so how about anything other than what’s here. Oh, maybe there’s four good ones, I’m a closeted “Precious” fan.