Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's operatically paranoid adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2003 suspense thriller, is easily the best movie of 2010 thus far, so it seems a bit churlish to wish that was higher praise. Don't get me wrong: Even running a wildly overlong 138 minutes, the film is mostly terrific, and one of the very rare works of its kind in which your interest actually increases during the final reels. Yet given Scorsese's glorious technical acumen and the efforts of a ridiculously gifted cast, I still left the cineplex feeling that it just missed greatness, and not even greatness along the lines of GoodFellas or The Departed - more like the genre excellence of Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Shutter Island is a strong, worthy offering, yet as far as this year's releases go, it's only a few degrees more satisfying than Youth in Revolt or Daybreakers. But hey, it's early - I'll happily take it.
The film opens with U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) en route to the titular island, located off the coast of New England, and home to a grim fortress housing 66 criminally insane patients and prisoners. Called to investigate the disappearance of a young mother who murdered her three children, the visitors quickly glean that there are far more mysteries afoot; staff members are inscrutably menacing, patients appear uniformly terrified, and a crumpled wad of paper with the evocative question "Who is 67?" is found in the vanished woman's cell. What follows is a gradually nightmarish collection of inquiries, red herrings, flashbacks, hallucinations (many involving Teddy's late wife, played by Michelle Williams), and really, really foul weather, with the audience forced to ask what on Shutter Island is real, and what might simply be a product of the tortured Teddy's imagination.
It's a sprawling, juicy premise, and one that Shutter Island's director sets up with a series of giddily enjoyable cinematic references; I chuckled out loud upon realizing that the opening music cue was borrowed from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and that Scorsese had the wit to cast John Carroll Lynch, the (likely) serial killer in David Fincher's Zodiac, as the prison's deputy warden. (In an equally giggly-creepy touch, the warden himself is played by Ted Levine, the cross-dressing killer from The Silence of the Lambs.) And for about an hour after its promising prelude, the film proves to be absolutely marvelous, filled with unsettling imagery and grandly over-the-top compositions, and with one topnotch character actor after another - Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Robin Bartlett - showing up to give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
Yet as Shutter Island wears on, you begin to feel a nagging sameness behind the presentation, with DiCaprio enacting ever-more-sweaty states of panic (albeit enacting them well), and with more and more talented actors showing up for cryptic three-minute conversations that briefly stop the movie dead in its tracks. (Among the other guest loons are Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and Elias Koteas. Overall, the cast is more gifted than Garry Marshall's, but Shutter Island still begins to suggest the Valentine's Day of the horror-suspense genre.) The rhythms of editing genius Thelma Schoonmaker are always razor-sharp here, but the movie's storyline starts to plod right when you're antsy for the tension to escalate, and several sequences feature distracting, "Wa-a-a-ait a minute ... " scenarios that you can't wrap your head around. (The hideout in the cliff? Seriously?)
Stick with the movie, though, because its head-scratchers do wind up making narrative sense, and the fantasies and apparent throwaway gambits do serve a function within the design; you can actually feel the audience becoming more engrossed in - as opposed to, as usually happens, disappointed by - the revelations behind the film's enigmatic puzzles. I had a fine time at Scorsese's latest, but I'm looking forward to having an even better one on repeat viewings; you can wish Shutter Island was better, but as 2010 screen offerings go, it's still a really good not-bad movie.