Shutter Island Part Two: The Film

Ashes to ashes...dust to dust.

In 1950’s Boston, two U.S. Federal Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) get trapped on an island that is home to a hospital for the criminally insane during a hurricane while investigating the disappearance of a psychotic patient (Emily Mortimer) in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel. 

How long was the wait?  Well, it was long enough for me to read Lehane’s book between the original and actual release dates.  And was it worth it?  Oh, you betcha!  And let’s get another thing straight, boss.  Shutter Island is a “lesser” Scorsese…as in Full Metal Jacket is a “lesser” Kubrick.  It also means this is the Scorsese I fell in love with as a kid.  Yup, my first exposure to the greatest living American director was Cape Fear, another “lesser” film.  I remember seeing it when I was twelve with my dad and brother.  We were the only ones in the theater spare for an old man who cowered in his seat the whole time.  It was one tense, wild and unforgettable experience and I remember leaving the theater thinking, “That was the Best Movie EVER.”  It wasn’t — not even close, but I’ve uttered that after getting Scorsese-ized time and time again.  Because here’s the thing about ol’ Marty…the guy is always going “whole hog” no matter what the material.  Shutter Island, though essentially a B-level flick, is an A-list production and one hell of a creep-out.  

The whole Scorsese gang is on board here:  Editor-in-Chief Thelma Schoonmaker (seriously, is there a better editor than Thelma?), production designer extraordinaire Dante Ferretti, macho-man muse DiCaprio (acting here as if his life depended on it) as well as cinematographer Robert Richardson (who creates an effective mid-era Hitchcock look).  There’s also a mix-and-match un-original music score that eerily brings to mind Bernard Herrmann as much as it does John Williams’ theme to Jaws…not to mention the haunting use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” in the “dream sequences” featuring “the wife” that will break your heart.  Scorsese, who has always been known for his seamless integration of pop music in his films, goes Malick on us here, and it will blow you away.  The sound design is also among the best I have ever heard…every leaf blowing in the wind, every creak of the trees and of doors and stairwells, every rain drop in a relentless storm, every little ash falling…it’s all created so vividly as to leave you breathless. 

Having read the novel and being a life-long Scorsese fan I knew from the get-go what Marty would use as a closing shot.  I knew every little twist, every turn, and yet this was so masterfully crafted and Schoonmaker so effortlessly edited Scorsese’s pieces of the puzzle, that I was completely enthralled and on the edge of my seat the entire time.  This was so well done, and I became so lost in the artistry of it, that I completely forgot I knew exactly how it was going to end.  That being said, like the novel, the film suffers as it heads towards its denouement and becomes weighed-down by its own generic revelations.  Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis wisely tunes into what should be focused on and what parts of the back-story to leave out, but the film still can’t overcome Lehane’s quasi-self-parodying central narrative conceit.  Scorsese also abuses his power in the damnably transfixing flashback scenes to craft a mini-movie about the Allied raid on Dachau: dead bodies frozen in heaps, Holocaust survivors gripping barbed wire, Nazi files raining down on blood-smeared floors…it’s all so dreadfully beautiful…the stuff of nightmares, and Scorsese revels in it. 

And here I am, barely having touched on the performances.  Make no mistake, now serving a fourth term with Marty, Leonardo DiCaprio is the actor he is today because of Scorsese, and his performance is a visceral powder-keg of pent-up emotion.  These two, like the characters in the film, are “Men of Violence”, and the results are blood-splattered Rorschach tests for the audience’s mind.  The supporting cast is A-list all the way with Ben Kingsley, Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and numerous others playing the game perfectly.  Then there’s the near-Lynchian female duo of Michelle Williams (brilliant as the woman Leo’s character can’t let go, and hers is an even more astounding performance considering the loss she suffered in real life with the passing of her daughter’s father Heath Ledger) and Emily Mortimer (seethingly demure and cracked like an ancient Greek statue as Leo’s Medea).  There are moments with these two that will jolt you like cold fingers on the back of your neck. 

Despite its flaws, Shutter Island is so well crafted, so tightly wound by Scorsese, and features such great performances, that one can’t help but be moved.  It contains spellbinding moments so perfectly pitched that I found myself wondering…is this the greatest A-list Hollywood-funded mainstream horror film since Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?  Well…it might be wishful thinking, boss…but I think it’s better for my film-loving soul to imagine Scorsese’s latest to be a great film than to fear it being his worst.  As is always the case with Marty, the devil is in the details and the layered meanings — how something so predictably generic could be molded into art.  And if an audience can’t appreciate the painstaking nature of such a craftsman, then surely we are the ones who are criminally insane. 

Written by David H. Schleicher 


Below, Max Richter’s composition “On the Nature of Daylight” is an evocative and stirring piece of work in its own right, and used in conjunction with the Michelle Williams’ scenes in Shutter Island…there are no words.  


  1. This is the hardest ranking I’ve ever had to do…but I invite others to do the same.

    Schleicher on Scorsese:

    Goodfellas 10/10
    Raging Bull 10/10
    Taxi Driver 10/10
    Kundun 9.5/10
    The Departed 9/10
    Gangs of New York 9/10
    Casino 8.5/10
    Shutter Island 8.5/10
    The Aviator 8.5/10
    Cape Fear 8/10
    The Last Temptation of Christ 7.5/10
    Mean Streets 7.5/10
    The Age of Innocence 7/10
    The King of Comedy 7/10
    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore 7/10
    Bringing out the Dead 6.5/10
    Boxcar Bertha 6/10
    After Hours 5/10

    Still have not seen: New York, New York or The Color of Money.

    • Ah, I’d put Cape Fear lower and The Last Temptation of Christ higher along with The Age of Innocence higher.

      New York, New York is a lesser Scorcese but The Color of Money is awesome.


      Cinda…hmmm…I might have to check out The Color of Money now. –DHS

  2. Not going to read the review just yet, as I will probably go to see this film in due course. Simply sneaked a peep at your conclusion to see which way the land lay!

    Main reason for leaving a comment, though, was to ask if the likes of The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, & Shine A Light get a look-in above? They add an interesting alternative dimension to the director’s overall body of work.

    Also, have you seen Who’s That Knocking at My Door? Was Scorsese’s debut feature-length flick & also saw a certain Mr. Harvey Keitel get his first run out!

    Longman, ah, just goes to show how prolific Scorsese has been…where even a life-long fan like myself can still have so much left to see. –DHS

  3. Also, I would not even give The Departed a decent wake, so much rubbish did I make of it! Anyway, noses & opinions!

    Longman, I’ve flipped back and forth on The Departed. It does not hold up as well on repeat views, but man, was I not insanely entertained when I first saw it? I mean I loved it. But, I can see where others might find it rubbish. –DHS

  4. David I’d rather not even think of the flaws, which may have been inherent in Lehane’s novel. This is such an exceedingly entertaining and atmospheric work that uses weather superlatively to externalize its conflicts. Unforgettable set pieces in the library, the cafeteria, the lighthouse, the cemetery burial vault, on rain drenched roads, and especially in the cave, where Patricia Clarkson turned in a tour de force of a supporting performance. I personally LOVED the ending, and as I had not read the novel, was unprepared for the delusional conclusion. I thought Di Caprio was super, as were some fine character actors. I can’t wait to see it a second time, and wanted to review it, but as Bob Clark has graciously volunteered, I can’t turn him down. I saw Mr. Polanski’s film GHOST WRITER last night and like dit quite a bit too, but I think I’ll give the edge to SHUTTER ISLAND (4.5 of 5). BTW, I think the world of Longman, but i dod not remotely agree with that curt dismissal there of THE DEPARTED! Ha! I’ve stood behind it.

    I will definitely get back here later today with Scorsese numerical ratings. Yours (and your review) were excellent. Ms. Shoonmaker appeared at the Film Forum for the restoration of THE RED SHOES, but I was busy at Union Square seeing the Polanski film.

    Sam, I’m very much looking forward to Polanski’s Ghost Writer. Hopefully the arthouse theater here will have it next week. What a feast it was for film buffs this week with both a new Scorsese and new Polanski opening! –DHS

  5. Great review here, David. I can’t wait to get out to the theater and see this one. I like that you mention Cape Fear, a film I recently revisited on the blog, and how it’s clear proof that film was Scorsese having a lot of fun with movie-ness of movies (kind of like Tarantino did this year with Inglourious Basterds. People often think of Cape Fear as lesser Scorsese, but I think it’s one of his most visceral and hilariously manic films. There’s a lot of energy in that film that was was lacking in some of his later work…plus it’s the last time we really got to see DeNiro unleashed.

    As for rankings…my top 5 Scorsese films look something like this:

    Raging Bull
    Taxi Driver
    Bringing Out the Dead
    The King of Comedy

    The second five would be:

    The Age of Innocence
    The Last Temptation of Christ
    Mean Streets
    After Hours

    And then the rest of the list would look something like this:

    The Aviator
    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
    Cape Fear
    Gangs of New York
    The Departed
    Boxcar Bertha

    A special mention should be made for his fantastic “Journey Through American Cinema” special as well as his documentary on Bob Dylan.

    Kevin, I watched Cape Fear again awhile back and was still entertained by it. I agree with the points you make. Strangely though, I just don’t care for much of Scorsese’s mid-career 1980’s work beyond Raging Bull (which of course was 1980). I don’t think he got cooking again until the 1990’s. You seem to have really enjoyed those films from the mid ’80’s though. I think much of his later work is routinely underrated, especially Kundun. –DHS

  6. Hey Dave. It may take me a few weeks to see SHUTTER ISLAND but I’m really looking forward to it. And I had a similar experience to yours with CAPE FEAR. My dad took me to see it at a second run movie theater in NE Philly (The Devon—don’t know if you’re familiar with it). We went to a 9:30 showing the night before New Year’s Eve. The theater was packed too (ticket prices at the Devon back then were $1.50). I’ll never forget when De Niro asked Juliette Lewis if he could put his arm around her, you could just feel everyone in the theater squirming. And when he jumped out of the water after being burned, quite a few people jumped and shouted. It was wild.

    The only current Scorsese movie I haven’t seen is KUNDUN. Something about it just has never interested me. Maybe someday I’ll give it a shot. I also haven’t seen his pre-MEAN STREETS stuff. That being said, the only movie of his that I absolutely do not like is NEW YORK, NEW YORK. You could tell that the drugs really inhibited his sensibilities on that one. Aside from that, I wouldn’t rank any of his other movies lower than a 6. GOODFELLAS is my favorite, and I actually find myself liking THE DEPARTED more each time I watch it.

    And I close on my favorite line from CAPE FEAR: “Are you my friend?” De Niro’s delivery of that is killer.

    Chris, or how about when DeNiro is looking for Nolte out behind the dumpster…”Come out, come out wherever you are!” Classic! –DHS

  7. David – Excellent review and we seem to be on the same wavelength on this one. Just a treat to watch as a fan of Scorsese. Here would be my Scorsese ratings, roughly in preferential order:

    Goodfellas – 10/10
    Raging Bull – 10/10
    Mean Streets – 9/10
    Taxi Driver – 9/10
    Casino – 9/10
    The King of Comedy – 9/10
    Shutter Island – 9/10
    The Aviator – 9/10
    The Age of Innocence – 8/10
    Bringing Out the Dead – 8/10
    The Departed – 8/10
    Gangs of New York – 7/10
    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – 7/10
    Cape Fear – 7/10
    After Hours – 6/10

    Ah, Dave, I see we agree After Hours is his worst. –DHS

  8. Hi David.

    I am jealous of you. You got to see Shutter Island. Down here, in India, I have absolutely no idea when it will release. At least a couple of months more before I get to see it 😦

    I couldn’t resist reading your review. I just had to get a sneak peek into the latest world of Scorsese. And this line in your review:

    “is this the greatest A-list Hollywood-funded mainstream horror film since Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?”

    Now, that’s making me have way too much expectation and I’m sure Marty won’t let me down.

    I’ve started watching/following/deciphering Scorsese only since a couple of years now (5-6 yrs) and I greatly lack behind. But I’m soon catching up.

    Based on what I’ve seen of him, here’s my list:

    Taxi Driver 10/10
    Raging Bull 10/10
    Goodfellas 9/10
    Kundun 9/10
    Casino 8/10
    The Departed 8/10
    Cape Fear 8/10
    Gangs of New York 8/10
    The Last Temptation of Christ 8/10
    The Aviator 7/10

    Prakash, that’s a good start. Looks like you have seen his “essentials” and we pretty much see eye-to-eye right down the line there. I hope Shutter Island comes your way soon, but I also hope I haven’t over-sold it to you! –DHS

  9. David, I am on board with you Sam and Dave on this, a terrific movie that will probably will rank as one of the best of the year…and we are only in February. Sure, it is not “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas” and there are some problems, yet when considering what Hollywood dumps on us these days Marty has produced a great pulp fiction of a movie.

    John, yes, I would say certain elements of it are Oscar-worthy. –DHS

  10. I think that this is a lesser Scorsese work only in conception. In execution, it’s the best thing he’s done since Gangs of New York. After he suffered under the yoke of the Weinsteins on Gangs and allowed them to strongarm him, he used The Aviator and The Departed to really gun for the Oscar because it was the last hurdle for him. Now that he’s got it, he seems to be back to having nothing to prove. After all, he was the one who pushed Shutter Island back out of Oscar season to tweak a few things in order to have the film he wanted. With the long-rumored Silence adaptation in the wings, he might go back to being the most adventurous American filmmaker of his generation.

    My ranking (which would probably change as soon as I wrote it), would look something like:
    1. Taxi Driver
    2. The King of Comedy
    3. Raging Bull
    4. The Last Temptation of Christ
    5. GoodFellas
    6. Gangs of New York
    7. Mean Streets
    8. The Age of Innocence
    9. Bringing Out the Dead
    10. After Hours
    11. Shutter Island
    12. Casino
    13. Cape Fear
    14. The Aviator
    15. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
    16. Kundun
    17. The Departed
    18. New York, New York
    19. Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
    20. Boxcar Bertha
    21. The Color of Money

    All but the last two would get at least a 3.5/5 from me. There’s just too much to admire about his movies. And this isn’t even counting his incredible documentaries.

    Jake, I like the way you’re thinking! I hope you are right. I really don’t understand the people who are so hung up on the “plot twist” and dismiss the film when there was so much great stuff going on. Every little element was near perfectly executed. –DHS

  11. Hi, David,

    I think you’ve persuaded me to go see this movie. I was going to let it pass.

    By the way, I finally saw The Shining. Sorry, I did not like it as much as you did (and do). After thinking about it, I decided that it had the same problem with pacing that I find in most of Kubrick’s movies and he doesn’t trust the viewer to get what’s going on. The only suspenseful moments for me were when the little boy was riding his bike/truck around the deserted halls. The way Kubrick shot that was really creepy. I didn’t like Eyes Wide Shut, either….(smile)

    Cinda, I recall you weren’t a big fan of Lehane’s book…but Scorsese’s film is much better and with his mastery of film language he adds so many layers to the narrative that were just not there in Lehane’s novel. As for The Shining (and Kubrick in general) I know the “pacing” is a matter of taste, but no one could make feel otherwise about the film. I love it, always have and always will. –DHS

  12. It was so disappointing. I WISH I had not seen any of the trailers. It probably would not have made a difference anyway. I saw the ending coming from miles away. I knew exactly how it was going to end, and when the time came, I was not shocked at all. So saddening when trailers ruin perfectly good movies for movie-lovers like me.

    Jess, I do agree the twist was very obvious (in the book even more so) but I loved the film. Having read the book beforehand, it was like I was seeing the movie for the second time the first time around, and I just enjoyed picking up on all of Scorsese’s artistic choices and filming techniques. The acting was also superb. –DHS

    • Oh, I am NOT doubting Scorsese’s filming techniques, nor the exquisite acting for a second. The cinematography was executed beautifully, the location was spectacular, the atmosphere created was truly one of paranoia, and I found myself extremely paranoid walking out of the theater. So the film was beautiful and effective, I just wish that I could have been taken off guard by the ending. I love that feeling, like in The Sixth Sense, or The Prestige, or The Others (why do all of these movies start with “The”?). I like twist endings you don’t see coming.

      That must have been cool, having read the book and having your own ideas of what the author was trying to convey, then seeing Scorsese’s own masterful interpretation of the novel. The world Scorsese creates is so dark but beautiful, the paradox makes for a visually rich movie experience, especially in a theater on a big screen. His other movies like The Departed, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear all had this same effect, Cape Fear especially.

      Jess, ah, I see, yes…The Others and The Prestige were truly shocking the first time around…I did not see those twists coming (though I knew something was coming for sure). The Sixth Sense sadly was spoiled for me before I saw it (and I saw it opening weekend, mind you!). That really ticked me off. Seven also had a good twist at the end that I didn’t expect when I first saw it way back when. I totally agree with you about Scorsese. –DHS

      • The Sixth Sense was ruined for my parents, too, and I think they were equally ticked. That sucks, man, especially since you saw it on opening night and knew what was going to happen. That’s so sad… I’m sorry, man. And Seven is on my “movies to see” list, so don’t tell me how it ends or I shall plug my ears and begin humming loudly.

  13. Hi! D.H.Schleicher,
    Here goes my limited list of Scorsese’s films that I have watched and enjoyed viewing…I must admit that I have not watched too many of Scorsese’s films.

    Shutter Island 10/10
    The Departed 10/10
    After Hours 9/10
    Raging Bull 10/10
    Taxi Driver 10/10
    Casino 10/10

    Goodfellas 10/10

    DeeDee ;D

    DeeDee – glad you liked Shutter Island! –DHS

  14. Loved Shutter enough to see it 3 x and each viewing was actually better, if you can believe that. I now think it’s one of Scorsese’s best films, although less original. In spite of it’s imperfections, it still resonates, a sign of significance in my mind. The old master still has it.

    Sheila, I am very much looking forward to watching it again on DVD. Scorsese films always make for great repeated viewing as he packs them with so many astounding details. –DHS

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