Exploring Soundtracks: Shutter Island


Today in Exploring Soundtracks, we’ll be continuing our walk through the films of Martin Scorsese by looking at the music from his 2010 neo-noir psychological thriller, “Shutter Island”.

So far, we’ve looked at the soundtracks to five of Scorsese’s films. This will be our sixth. While our journey through the films of Martin Scorsese has been a bit jumbled and out of order, we’ve still managed to cover a significant number of some of his most popular and well-received movies.

“Shutter Island” definitely stands out when looking back at some of the other films we’ve covered. While it technically still qualifies as a period drama, it’s much more of a genre flick in the vein of psychological thriller. Of the other soundtracks that we’ve looked at, “Cape Fear” seems to be as close of a match in terms of target audience. Like “Cape Fear”, “Shutter Island” was largely influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and brushes up against the horror genre for most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour run time.

For the soundtrack, Scorsese once again enlisted the help of his longtime collaborator, Robbie Robertson. The soundtrack does not contain an original score, but rather a collection of previously recorded material handpicked by Robertson. It contains mostly modern classical music, but does have the occasional odd duck thrown in.

Before we get too far into the soundtrack, here’s a brief synopsis of “Shutter Island”, for those who need a refresher.


“Shutter Island” follows the story of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) as they investigate the escape of a murderer from Ashecliffe Hospital, an insane asylum located on a remote island. As the plot thickens, Daniels begins to suspect a conspiracy among the staff, and must face his fears to unravel the mystery.

Shutter Island

From the first scene, we’re introduced to the ominous tones that will be our companions for the duration of the film. As the marshals pull up on their boat and land on the island, they’re escorted to Ashecliffe Hospital by a group of correctional officers. During this scene, “Symphony No. 3: Passacaglia” enters in with orchestral drones. The rumbling basses and horns are soon accompanied by a swift staccato of strings that heightens the sense of foreboding as the marshals enter the asylum.

The soundtrack to “Shutter Island” features a lot of classical music, but one piece in particular is referenced by the characters directly. As the marshals join the doctor for drinks, he has “Quartet for Piano And Strings in A Minor” playing on a record. Daniel’s partner asks who the composer was, and Daniels answers, “Mahler”. The quartet continues playing throughout a psychologically charged scene, in which Daniels has several flashbacks to his service in WWII.

Unlike most of Scorsese’s films, there aren’t many popular songs used in “Shutter Island”. One of them is “Cry” by Johnnie Ray, which plays during one of Daniel’s dreams on a record player. In the dream, Daniels sees his dead wife, who tells him not to give up on his investigation. Along with the recording of “Cry”, we hear high-pitched vibrato strings reminiscent of a scene from a Hitchcock film.

Another creepy track is “Root of an Unfocus”which features the haunting, repetitive plucking of a discordant piano. The track increasing the unsettling nature of Daniels’ dream as he walks through a snowy street of corpses, and a dead little girl asks him why he didn’t save her.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the music is sparse throughout the film, but the scenes where it kicks in are amplified for the most effective moments of catharsis. And that makes “Shutter Island” a standout among Scorsese films.

Track List

Disc 1
  1. “Fog Tropes” (Ingram Marshall) – (Orchestra of St. Lukes & John Adams)
  2. “Symphony No. 3: Passacaglia – Allegro Moderato” (Krzysztof Penderecki) – (National Polish Radio Symphony & Antoni Wit)
  3. “Music for Marcel Duchamp” (John Cage) – (Philipp Vandré)
  4. “Hommage à John Cage” – (Nam June Paik)
  5. “Lontano” (György Ligeti) – (Wiener Philharmoniker & Claudio Abbado)
  6. “Rothko Chapel 2” (Morton Feldman) – (UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus)
  7. “Cry” – (Johnnie Ray)
  8. “On the Nature of Daylight” – (Max Richter)
  9. “Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Mayan City Which They Themselves Destroyed for Religious Reasons – 3rd Movement” (Giacinto Scelsi) – (Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra)
  10. “Quartet for Piano And Strings in A Minor” (Gustav Mahler) – (Prazak Quartet)
Disc 2
  1. “Christian Zeal and Activity” (John Adams) – (The San Francisco Symphony & Edo de Waart)
  2. “Suite for Symphonic Strings: Nocturne” (Lou Harrison) – (The New Professionals Orchestra & Rebecca Miller)
  3. “Lizard Point” – (Brian Eno)
  4. “Four Hymns: II for Cello and Double Bass” (Alfred Schnittke) – (Torleif Thedéen & Entcho Radoukanov)
  5. “Root of an Unfocus” (John Cage) – (Boris Berman)
  6. “Prelude – The Bay” – (Ingram Marshall)
  7. “Wheel of Fortune” – (Kay Starr)
  8. “Tomorrow Night” – (Lonnie Johnson)
  9. “This Bitter Earth”/”On the Nature of Daylight” – (Dinah Washington & Max Richter; Arrangement by Robbie Robertson)

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