The name of this film could be heard with certain accents as "shudder," which would dovetail nicely with its explicit content. "Shutter," in any case, is far better since it suggests furtive glances through a convenient window from where one sees what one is not normally entitled to see although hardly enough to form a fair conclusion. This conceit has fueled dozens of films, tragically pigeonholed as voyeurism by computerized reviewers, yet it remains such a basic premise as to allow for new versions that do not simply echo their inspirations. And our reinvention comes from a thirtysomething U.S. marshal by the name of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio).
We first see Teddy violently seasick aboard a ferry to the titular isle which houses a mental institution with the repute and splendid isolation of Alcatraz. Once he has righted himself and gained the deck, we notice the beauty that surrounds him – the cresting water, the scudding clouds, the lone boat heading into eternity. His dress and speech as he accosts his fellow marshal on the assignment, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), indicates we are not in the present time; further details tell us the year is 1954. The fact is important not only because it explains why smoking is the third most common on-screen action after breathing and talking, but also owing to Teddy's G.I. memories of the liberation of Dachau. The flashbacks to that time, including a visionary scene in the quarters of the camp's commanding officer, will provide Teddy with his superimposed daydreams and eventually with nightly tortures. His horrible narrative ("There were too many bodies to count. There were too many bodies to imagine.") literally bleeds into his current predicament, the localization of a missing young murderess called Rachel Solando. Teddy believes in Rachel Solando, in what she is said to have done, in the existence of a place like Shutter Island because he has had first-hand experience in what human beings can do to one another. To him and perforce to us, there seem to be few boundaries to wickedness.
Solando's evil will be as repulsive as the evils of any war, only on a smaller and more personal scale. She apparently drowned her three small children in a lake; apart from vague allusions to her mental unwellness, the reason why she did so is never made explicit. A gentle excuse ("her husband died on the shores of Normandy") is circulated but never condoned. Although the institution is a technological fortress flush with armed correctional officers and an atmosphere of, well, more than brooding suspicion, Solando is said to have escaped a locked cell barefoot without leaving a trace. Thankfully, Teddy and Aule do not examine the room too closely perhaps because they are too busy scrutinizing the wisdom and manners of Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Cawley will resemble many other heads of mental institutions in his complacent geniality, as well as the supposition shared by him and everyone else that he is much smarter than you are. He is parentally proud of Ashecliffe, the actual name of the institution, as "a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care." Such a slogan may appear either absurd or self-evident depending on how you define morality; but to an intelligent person it should not come off as intimidating – which is, of course, exactly how Teddy takes it. In fact, as Cawley offers a limited tour of two of the three wards, Teddy begins to sense that something is awry. It is at this point that Aule coaxes the truth out of him: he is not really here to find Rachel Solando, who may or may not exist, but to confirm whether Andrew Laeddis, the incendiary responsible for the death of Teddy's wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), is indeed housed in the third and completely off-limits ward for the supremely dangerous and unstable.
My non-disclosure policy prevents me from revealing much more, but the attentive viewer should ask himself the following. Why do the names Solando and Laeddis sound so odd? Can we really believe Teddy's account of what happened to the Dachau guards? Is the film's etymology of the German word for "dream" correct? How would Teddy, a very intelligent but not a cultured man, immediately recognize a piece by this composer? And, as Teddy himself is asked, what is "the rule of four" and why would intelligence agencies consult a psychiatrist like Dr. Cawley? Through all these investigations, Teddy never leaves our sight: he is our compass and chart, and it is incumbent upon us to judge everything he sees and feels. Upon researching some bits and pieces to Shutter Island, I learned that DiCaprio in his acting career has received three Academy Award and seven Golden Globe nominations. Not that nominations are a surefire way to measure talent, but given his accepted status as a boyish charmer the number is still remarkable. As it were, DiCaprio's effectiveness as Teddy Daniels is contingent upon Daniels' biography: a highly-decorated war veteran but still a kid; a once-raging alcoholic with violent tendencies; a German speaker who mistrustfully addresses the sinister Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow), one of Cawley's colleagues, in that language; and a young man full of love and despair. DiCaprio looks and plays the part so smoothly – his German heritage and good accent making him all the more convincing in his GI role – that we are loath to disparage him for some of his frankly unsubstantiated accusations. So when he jabs at Cawley with the scornful "you act like insanity is catching," he may not be terribly far from the truth. Too bad the truth may be light years from him.