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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Shutter Island

June 7th, 2010

Shutter Island - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Shutter Island was originally scheduled for a release in October of 2009, but was pushed back to February of 2010. Considering the pedigree this film has (with Oscar winner Martin Scorsese behind the camera and the three time Oscar nominated Leonardo DiCaprio in front) there was a lot of Awards Season Buzz going in. So why would the studio move the film from an early Awards Season position to the middle of February? There are very few legitimate answers to that question that wouldn't crush expectations. The reason I've seen given the most was that the studio didn't have the finances to promote the film at the time. Paramount, a studio that had earned more than $1 billion in each of the last three years, didn't have $60 to $80 million to spend on advertising? Not sure I buy that. So was that the real reason, or was the film just a bust and the studio wanted to dump it on a softer time of year?

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, whom we meet as he is traveling to Shutter Island with his new partner, Chuck Aule. They are traveling to the island to get to Ashecliff Hospital, a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, where the day before a patient, Rachel Solando, has escaped from a seemingly locked room. The investigation is not easy for a number of reasons. Firstly, a lot of the witnesses are psychiatric patients, who are less that useful at times. Secondly, the two main doctors, Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring are less than forthcoming. And finally, Teddy Daniels is having problems of his own, suffering recurring dreams of traumatic events from his past, including some from World War II and the death of his wife.

Teddy confides to Chuck that the primary reason he is at Shutter Island is not to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, to investigate the death of his wife. She was killed in a fire and the man who started it, Andrew Laeddis, was sent to Ashecliff Hospital after he set another fire killing two more people. While researching the place, he discovered there were a lot of secrets, including the possibility of human experiments. He's on the island to find the proof that he needs to expose it to the world, but now that he's on the island, and isolated, Chuck suggests he might have walked into a trap. As his recurring nightmares become hallucinations, he begins to wonder who he can trust.

It must be nice to be Martin Scorsese. How many other people can pull together a cast like this? There are about ten actors in this movie with more than a few lines, and more than half of them have earned Oscar nominations. Almost all of them have earned at least one major award nomination (Emmy, SAG, Golden Globe, etc.). Fortunately, he makes the most of his cast in this Noiresque Alfred Hitchcock-like mystery. The sheer number of twists in this movie almost demands repeated viewing. Even going in knowing that what you see isn't going to be reality (the trailers tell you that much) this film does a superb job at selling each version of reality until it is destroyed by the revelation of another secret. And there are plenty of secrets. In lesser hands, this would have quickly grown tiresome, as each revelation would have made the previous part of the movie moot. However, here it holds up. Sort of. The first part of the movie where you have Teddy and Chuck investigating a missing patient makes sense. After the first twist is revealed, you can re-watch that part of the movie again with this new information and it still makes sense. Almost. You do get the sense that something is not right, but in a good way. (Like there's one more twist coming up, another secret to be revealed, not that someone messed up the continuity.)

That's not to say the movie is perfect. This movie isn't for everyone. There are some problems with the sheer number of twists and secrets, which begins to border on the ridiculous. I would suspect a significant number of viewers would give up on the movie. Secondly, I found the soundtrack to be a little, what's the term I'm looking for? Oppressive, perhaps. Heavy-handed, maybe. Early in the movie I thought the orchestral soundtrack was actually the foghorn of the ferry the two U.S. Marshals are being transported to be island by. When it kept being repeated throughout the movie, I just wanted it to be toned down. There was a part early in the film as the pair are being driven past a cemetery where there was a particularly strong use of natural sounds to emphasize the soundtrack, specifically a crow cawing. The first time it matched the music perfectly and was also excellent use of the surround speakers. When it happened a second time a few seconds latter, it was a little off in the timing, but I thought perhaps Martin Scorsese was using this to foreshadow how our perceptions of reality will be a little off in this movie. The third time it happened I realized it wasn't part of the movie, but there was an actual crow sitting in the tree outside my window cawing in time with the music. It was a coincidence that this bird had nearly impeccable timing, but it made the movie experience that much stranger.

I only have the DVD to review, but I hope the Blu-ray will be arriving soon. As for the extras on the DVD, there are none. Zero. Not acceptable. The Blu-ray does have a couple featurettes, but until the screener arrives, I don't have any details on it. That said, the Blu-ray costs nearly 50% more, so they better be impressive.

The Verdict

Shutter Island: great movie, terrible DVD. The Blu-ray is not much better and the price is a little steep. That said, it is still worth checking out and the replay value is high enough that it is worth buying over just renting.

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