Under the Radar

Shutter Island’s Old-Fashioned Suspense

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (just out on Blu-ray and DVD) stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Marshall, a WWI veteran and U.S. Marshal sent to investigate a patient's disappearance from a remote island prison hospital for the criminally insane.

Scorsese has taken a lot of heat in the last few years for the movies he's made with Leo. Even though the director finally won his Oscar for The Departed, cinema snobs claim the Boston crime drama pales in comparison to Goodfellas, Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. The Aviator gets dismissed as a by-the-numbers biopic of Howard Hughes.

Wrong, and wrong again. Anyone who watches a lot of Turner Classic Movies has see Scorsese appear on the network sharing his love for old Hollywood pictures and making appeals for their restoration. Over the last decade, the director has tried to capture the vibe of the 40s and 50s films he grew up with and translate that feeling to modern audiences.

Notice that I didn't say "classic" films. What's most interesting about the work is that Scorsese's just as interested in the weird, almost forgotten genre pictures that TCM shows at 3am as he is in the accepted movie canon.

With Shutter Island, Scorsese takes on the psychiatric thriller, that genre that both popularized and tried to explain the science of the mind to a mass audience. While Hitchcock's Spellbound and Vertigo seem like obvious reference points, the real inspiration could be High Wall, one of those middle-of-the-night Turner classics where Robert Taylor also plays a war vet who's had trouble adjusting to life back home.

Shutter Island tries to incorporate modern psychiatric ideas when explaining its characters, but the film's plot and pacing feel like they're straight out of 1956. Bob Richardson's cinematography is spectacular, evoking the best work of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's filmmaking partnership.

As the final plot twists tumble out in the movie's last ten minutes, you may feel the chills the genre promise or you might find the whole thing hopelessly old-fashioned. The great thing about Shutter Island is that Scorsese would take either reaction as a compliment.

The Blu-ray release includes two special features. Behind the Shutters follows the development of the film from the Dennis Lehane novel. Into the Lighthouse details the historical landscape of psychiatric therapies during the 1950s.

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