Burning women, bloody women, women waifish and sensual, emaciated and menacing. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by all of them in Shutter Island. He offers a clue to his fixation when he tells his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), what happened to his wife. “There was a fire at the apartment building while I was at work,” Teddy says. “It was the smoke that got ‘em, not the fire. So that’s important.” He nods, then lights a cigarette.
It’s a small joke, dark and allusive, that Teddy’s face is now obscured by smoke at the moment that he’s ostensibly revealing his past. In fact, Teddy will spend much of Martin Scorsese’s movie smoking, as he ponders the murky case before them. It’s 1954, and a patient has gone missing from Ashecliffe, an asylum for the criminally insane set off on a treacherously rocky, perennially foggy island in Boston Harbor. The marshals’ arrival occasions a standard-issue exposition from the deputy warden (John Carroll Lynch): here’s the men’s ward, here’s the women’s, and there’s the scary ward for the super-violent offenders. No one can leave the island, which has but one dock, as well as steep cliffs and crashing waves. And oh yes, the doctors in charge have developed unusual treatments, maybe radically progressive, maybe monstrously cruel.
Teddy absorbs this information with what seems reasonable skepticism, his tendency to suspicion reinforced when he meets the imperious Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and especially the German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), whose accent initiates Teddy’s flashbacks to Dachau, where he was one of the liberating Americans. After checking off the horrors typical of such motivating memories—gaunt survivors, grey snow, mother and child corpses—Teddy returns to his seeming present extra-mad at the experimenting doctors. They’re baffled by the disappearance of Rachel (Emily Mortimer), a wretched creature who drowned her own children. Or maybe she slit their throats.
Amid all the confusion, the movie sort of invites you to see through Teddy’s eyes: peering at uncooperative staff members, frustrated by the doctors’ obfuscations and delays, his rising anger seems righteous. When he and Chuck go exploring (investigating) in the cemetery and end up drenched by rain, they’re newly clothed in orderlies’ uniforms and left to bunk in with the mostly black orderlies, Teddy’s perspiring white face rather strikingly visible as he tosses and turns at night. As he suspects a conspiracy, he does look awfully alone.
Still, you might wonder that he’s distracted by periodic visits from his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). Red-lipped, wet-haired, and dressed in clingy silk, she emerges amid flaming stuffed chairs and charred walls, signs of that memory doesn’t have of the fiery apartment. She looks out a window, she turns to her husband, she begs him to let her go and oh yes, to leave this bad and dreary island. But poor, grieving Teddy cannot let go. He must persist. He presses his face into her neck, holding her body close to him until she disappears into ashy air. It’s true, he confesses to Chuck, that he’s requested this case at Ashecliffe because he thinks an inmate has something to do with the fire that killed Dolores and their very pale children. Chuck listens but now, he looks unconvinced.
Hmmm. Maybe Teddy’s view is… not… reliable.
Though Shutter Island works hard to conjure plot twists and surprises, more than a few depend on your trust in Teddy, which is always already fundamentally undermined from film’s start—that smoky haze business and the spectral Dolores being only first clues to his untrustworthiness. It’s not only that Dolores warns him, again and again, to get out of this nightmare. Or that the almost-sane-seeming and refreshingly lively patient (Robin Bartlett) urges him to “run” (a caution that only underscores the movie’s frequently referenced starting point: there is nowhere to run to). Or even that he’s also visitated by a few other ghostly types, including the supposed escaped patient Rachel, replete with bloody knife and surrounded by her children’s bloody bodies. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she smiles, as Teddy gapes and grabs up a corpse, as if to push the life back into her.
Actually, they are a little beautiful, as are most all of Teddy’s visions, including his own of Nazis massacred. He sees murder and mayhem as sequential carefully composed, slow-motiony tableaux of streaky, pallid faces, figures crumpled and quiet. His fearful, furious mind is drawn to images of sanctuary—caves, cells, a lighthouse—that are all, it turns out, dangerous, dreadful places, where truths are less revealed than rearranged.
That Teddy’s nightmares are so assiduously premised on dead women, with children too, is not a little banal. It’s true, they don’t seem to be wholly responsible for their sorry states, as they are surrounded by men—Nazis, doctors, marshals—who tend not to believe them, to lock them up or reject their counsel. And it’s true too, that at least some of these men are, as Dr. Naehring terms his area of specialty, “men of violence.” Admiring Teddy’s “excellent defense mechanisms,” the doctor explains that his focus is not the same as “violent men.” He claims that his work is of a piece with the investigators, that men of violence are capable of making hard choices, inflicting and narrating pain. They can’t make sense of violence. But they can do the next best thing: blame it on someone else.