Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

Published 4 years ago by , Updated June 4th, 2014 at 10:09 am,

shutter island dicaprio Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

While we have a Shutter Island review where you can leave comments, we’ve set up this as a place where you can discuss spoilers about the film without worrying about ruining it for folks who haven’t seen it yet.

To help steer discussion we’ve added a lengthy analysis of the Shutter Island ending and an explanation of why our analysis of the film fits with the story Scorsese intended to tell. Does our Shutter Island explanation match your theory? Find out!

If you’re posting comments here, assume that anyone in the conversation has seen the movie – if you haven’t seen the movie, I would recommend you don’t read these comments here until you have. icon smile Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

Discuss away!

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DiCaprio’s Character is Definitely Crazy

Sorry guys, there is no mystery or deeper meaning here. All the conspiracy theories about Shutter Island being some secret government facility – or the doctors “getting to” Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) by the end of the film – are simply off the mark. DiCaprio’s character is actually Andrew Laeddis (a.k.a. patient 67), a disturbed inmate of Shutter Island who the doctors are trying to rehabilitate. Teddy’s investigation of the island is actually an intricate role playing game designed by Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Teddy’s partner “Chuck” (Mark Ruffalo), who is actually Teddy’s primary shrink, the “missing” Dr. Sheehan.

Cawley and Sheehan are the more sympathetic doctors, who believe that with therapy and compassion madness can be cured in someone like Andrew Laeddis. On the other hand, Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) and the Warden (Ted Levine) believe that guys like Andrew are too unstable and violent for a therapeutic solution; strapping patients down and drugging them (in some cases lobotomizing them) are the solutions Naehring and the Warden believe in.

shutter island review3 Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

The role playing game is set into motion in order to give Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan one last chance to prove that Andrew Laeddis can be pulled out of his “Teddy Daniels” fantasy and will accept the reality of his trauma: that his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) was mentally ill and murdered their children, and that he, Andrew, murdered her in retaliation. Andrew feels guilty because he knew of his wife’s insanity for a long time – but due to his own issues with drinking and post-traumatic stress after his experiences in WWII, Andrew never acknowledged the extent of her problems and it cost him his children.

Guilt and hurt are what cause Andrew to invent a secondary persona – one in which he is still a war hero and a federal Marshal named Teddy Daniels. Because he is intelligent, he invents an intricate mental narrative in which conspiracy theories about Shutter Island and a hunt for a patient who doesn’t exist keep him occupied with a mystery that he cannot (or refuses to) solve: that he is patient 67.

How To Explain The Ending

shutter island 01 Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

The ending of Shutter Island seems ambiguous to many people, but again, to me it was pretty clear-cut. Teddy wakes up to the reality that he is actually Andrew Laeddis, though he is warned by Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan that he has regressed into his fantasy world before. However, Andrew is smart: When Dr. Sheehan sits with him on the steps that next morning, Andrew knows that the doctors and Warden are observing his behavior. The thing is, his guilt and pain are still so heavy that he knows he cannot live with them;  rather than live with the knowledge of his pain, he chooses to pretend that he is still Teddy Daniels and let them lobotomize him, so that he can finally be free of his burden.

That’s what the line to Dr. Sheehan about ‘living as a monster, or dying as a good man,’ means – Andrew would rather be mind-wiped as “Teddy Daniels” than live with the sins of Andrew Laeddis. The End.

Debunking the Conspiracy Theories

I teach classes on literature and literary analysis and one of the hardest techniques to teach students is how to accurately analyze a text, based on what is on the page. People read into things all kinds of ways – but you should have concrete evidence from the source material to back those theories.

Here is a list of some things that people who believe Shutter Island was an evil government lab, or that Teddy Daniels was sane and got “tricked” in the end, should keep in mind:

shutter island review4 Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

  • When the film opens, “Teddy” is on a boat headed for Shutter Island (the boat is real, by the way). The room Teddy is in has manacles and shackles hanging in it – restraints for the prisoners being brought to the island, and likely where Teddy/Andrew was held before the role play experiment began. As for when Teddy “resets” his memory? I’ll admit it’s a bit of a plot hole.
  • In the lighthouse, Dr. Cawley tells Andrew that he is seeing things and feeling body tremors because of “withdraw.” No, the cigarettes and pills Teddy takes throughout the movie are not meant to drug him – in fact it’s the opposite. Cawley and Sheehan take Andrew off his meds for the role play experiment, in order to help him break through to reality. As the film goes on, Teddy begins to have more vivid hallucinations while he’s awake – his meds were meant to suppress that type of psychosis, not inspire it. Going off the meds is what makes him go so nuts later in the film.
  • Fire is a symbol of Andrew/Teddy’s insanity in the movie. If you watch closely, every time Teddy is around fire – the matches he lights in Ward C, the fire in the cave with “Dr. Solando” and when he blows up Dr. Cawley’s car near the end – he suffers some sort of hallucination. Fire is the symbol of Andrew’s fantasy world, while water (the opposite of fire) is the symbol of the reality of what happened to him. His wife drowns his children in water and it is water which makes Andrew so upset/uneasy/sick throughout the film. So that cave scene with “Dr. Solando?” Yeah, she isn’t real – and therefore her whole spiel about Shutter Island being a secret government mind control lab isn’t real either.

clarson shutter island Shutter Island Ending Explanation & Discussion

  • The whole “government mind control operation” is a red-herring Andrew Laeddis invents for his fantasy. It allows him to explain to himself over and over why he is at Shutter Island (investigating a conspiracy) and allows him to demonize the doctors and staff as threats or conspirators. The goal of Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan’s role play is to allow Andrew to see for himself how impossible and absurd his conspiracy theory is by actually letting him investigate it to its end. That’s why Dr. Sheehan/Chuck instigate Andrew’s wild theories while he and “Teddy” are stuck in that crypt during the hurricane (“While you were looking into them, they were looking into you!”) – Sheehan wants Andrew to play out his fantasy until he can see how impossible it is. That’s why nothing is in lighthouse at the end…
  • The hurricane is real. It’s just Boston weather and a cinematic throwback to old pulp Noir movies like Key Largo. That’s it.
  • Jackie Earle Haley’s character, George Noyce, is a guy who knew Teddy/Andrew in the asylum. Noyce was a “repeat offender” who ended up back on Shutter Island and fed Andrew conspiracy theories for his fantasy. One day Noyce called “Teddy” by his real name, Laeddis, causing a psychotic outburst where Andrew beat him up. That assault is what caused Dr. Naehring and the Warden to push for Laeddis to be lobotomized, causing Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan to create the role play game as a last-ditch effort to cure Laeddis.

The name game and explanations from filmmakers…

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  1. Yeah this was a great synopsis to the movie and I really enjoyed reading it but I have to disagree with you for one thing, you said that “Andrew would rather be mind-wiped as Teddy Daniels , than live with the sins of Andrew Laeddis” where as I believe it’s the other way round. Why? Because when he is sitting on the steps we have all ready discussed and agreed that he is in reality, Andrew Laeddis, and then he gives Chuck/Dr.Sheehan the monster-good man line, so I believe that he now wants the lobotomy while he is in touch with reality as Andrew Laeddis because he has come to terms with the source of his trauma and why he is on shutter island and that he is a loving father and husband that is sorry for his offence and sorry for his ignorance of his wife’s well being so this is why I believe this is what he refers to as his ‘good-man’ side that he would rather die/mind-wiped as Andrew coming to terms with his horrible offence rather than live like a monster, teddy, who on shutter island for the last 24 months has acted like a monster beating up numerous guards, orderlies and fellow patients in the persona of Teddy Daniels. Also if you look at how calm Andrew is when he wakes in the bed surrounded by the docs and the warden and then again on the steps with Dr.Sheehan and how he walks towards the orderlies and warden for the lobotomy rather than refrain from it in comparison to how much of an asshole Teddy Daniels was throughout the whole move with a very violent mind that even the warden talks to him about it in the car journey after Teddy’s night in the cave.

    Hope I made some kind of sense here haha but other than that great page :)

    • “Because when he is sitting on the steps we have all ready discussed and agreed that he is in reality, Andrew Laeddis, and then he gives Chuck/Dr.Sheehan the monster-good man line, so I believe that he now wants the lobotomy while he is in touch with reality as Andrew Laeddis because he has come to terms with the source of his trauma and why he is on shutter island and that he is a loving father and husband that is sorry for his offence and sorry for his ignorance of his wife’s well being so this is why I believe this is what he refers to as his ‘good-man’ side that he would rather die/mind-wiped as Andrew coming to terms with his horrible offence rather than live like a monster, teddy, who on shutter island for the last 24 months has acted like a monster beating up numerous guards, orderlies and fellow patients in the persona of Teddy Daniels.”

      This is one big-ass sentence.

  2. i have one question….why did Mrs Kearns,a mentally ill patient during the interview (investigation) asked Teddy Daniels to RUN…i think dat scene was real and di caprio wasn’t fantasizing in dat one…dat lady knew d truth dat dose doctors were making him fool…

    • She wasn’t a real patient she was in fact just another part of the role play used to help Teddy/Andrew. Notice how he says she was ”normal compared to the other patients” this is because she was normal and also notice how she looked at him nervously and had to leave when he asked if she knew the patient Andrew Laeddis, it was because she knew it was him.

      • She also wanted to get rid of that partner (she already knew he was one of the ones controlling all the un ethical stuff inside the asylum, colleague of the doctor) and she asked him for a glass of water then wrote to Teddy “RUN”. This souns more logical to me.

  3. I love to share knowledge that will I have built up with the yr to
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  4. And also they repeatidly denied Teddy Daniels aka Andrew Llaedis acess to the staff and patients medical files.

  5. I agree with Gavin, i think at the end when he asks which is better to die a good man or live as a monster, i think he wants to be put out of his misery aka lobotomized what have you, while he is in his right mind and back in reality, i think he means would it be worth it to live, but live as an insane person making up a fake reality like he was doing, or would it be better to just call it quits while he’s in his right mind at least knowing he’s going out/being lobotomized while he’s in his right man and remembers reality. HOwever some things still confuse me, for one: if all of it was rehearsed why did that lady write “run” on his paper? was she for real crazy or not, if she was normal and just acting for his role play, why would she write “run” to him? unless she just knew they would lobotomize him so as a secret message like “save yourself or your gonna be a vegetable soon” ? but if thats what she was doing that means she saw good in him and didnt agree with the doctors to lobotomize him?, or was that just part of her role play to write run to him as to play along like the island is dangerous/bad intentions? to feed his fantasy? also hard to tell which scenes were real and which ones were hallucinations, like the car blow up scene? almost figured it was a halucination but the doctor says “i loved that car”.
    But some peoples theory of how the doctors are really bad and that leo isn’t insane at all, why would they do it? in hopes of really creating a government controlled “ghost”?? what good would a half out of it/violent man do for the government?
    and on another note, i don’t understand why he himself as well as others refer to him as a monster for his crime, the man killed his wife gently, after she murdered all of their children!! i would call that the closest to justifiable homicide possible, though he did feel guilty for not getting her help before, its no his fault she went that crazy,he had his own trauma to deal with being in the war and seeing all those things of war.,
    so lastly yea, i’d say i think at the end he did not relapse but just wants to put an end to it while he is in his right mind and reality. crazy awesome movie, love leo

    • @Brian If you research Project Paperclip, the U.S. brought over German psychologists and other doctors of the sort following WWII in an attempt to achieve the implanting of memories into a given subject’s mind. Following that inspiration, the film would make some sense given that the entire series of events was part of one of the Paperclip projects.

  6. Just watched the movie again today for the 2nd time. I thought that Teddy was a normal Marshal coming to Shutter Island. I thought when he was looking for patient 67 that they TURNED him INTO patient 67 by giving him the pills, coffee, food, water, and cigars. I didn’t know he was ALREADY patient 67.

  7. Hello. So everything you said made sense. But I still don’t get that if andrew is really insane and “teddy” made up this theory about how shutter island does brain experiments on patients and it was proved to not be real… then why was he labotomized at the end of the movie for being insane when they were trying to convince him the whole time that brain experiments and making people into ghosts and erasing their memories wasn’t true?

    • Reason they started this whole role play was for one reason. Teddy was a dangerous patient; it got to the point where he attacked other patient’s. Some doctors thought it was necessary to lobotimize him so that he would stop being harmful.. In a last ditch effort “chuck” and Cawley make this whole role play hoping that teddy would come back to reality… Although the experiment appeared to have failed. –> teddy was still seen as dangerous, and they had to lobotimize him.

  8. I have watched this movie 4 times! Really awesome movie and i am totally agree with spiffy. Teddy was a real marshal!

  9. I have a question for you guys.
    For the first half of the movie we see all the things and events from the perspective of Marshall Teddy or hallucination of Andrew! but all of these as I understand (maybe it is not perfect!) are hallucination. There is not something wrong in film making that director deliberately put audience in wrong way? Because I think I saw half of movie from hallucination view and then from the middle of movie I saw reality. For instance I found that Rachel the patient is hallucination and real one is his wife Dolores.
    My question is, this is art of film making or as I believe it is misleading the viewer?

    Regards,
    ZAK

    • I should also say if we agree what “SpiffyAnonymous” said it makes more sense and then it is a masterpiece I expect from Scorsese!

  10. There was no hurricane. It was part of Teddy’s hallucination. Dr. Crawley explains at the lighthouse that Teddy repeats the same theory over and over again, including the hurricane. At the end of the movie when Teddy came to reality, the yard was in pristine condition and no damage to the buildings, yet during Teddy’s hallucination, the yard and buildings were damaged. It has to do with water representing the reality side of Teddy’s brain that he was fighting and not ready to deal with.

  11. Contuniued from my previous comment: Chuck reinforces Teddy’s hurricane hallucination by Chuck always mentioning it to Teddy. Chuck knows about the hurricane hallucination because it was part of Teddy’s prior hullicinations that he continually repeats.

  12. With regard to charley towns comment I believe that the ‘run’ character is a real patient and is understandably scared and leaves when he asks if she’s heard of Andrew laeddis, this being due to his attack on noyce for ‘outing him’ 2 weeks earlier

  13. With the speech at the ending I see it slightly differently. Andrew asks if it’s better to die a good man but if it’s a ‘reawakening’ causing enough guilt to voluntarily lobotomize himself then there’s no way he see’s himself as a good man. I think he remains delusional but in the sense that he is at this time aware of the two realities and is choosing to go towards the teddy one, knowing that if he ‘died’ as teddy then he is to himself a good man. After all the delusion is about fooling himself rather than the outside world.

  14. I have now watched the film and read the book.

    The doctors turns him insane because when he admits in the mausolem that he’s gonna reveal the place AND find Andrew Laeddis in front of doc Sheehan, him (Sheehan) and Cawley decides to make up a role play to make Teddy think he is Andrew Laeddis, the anagram is just an accident. The big evidence for saying Teddy is not insane from the beginning is that he never had any children. As long as he haven’t used their cigaretts or pills, no children occurs in his dreams. In the end, he realizes he wont get of the island as well as he’s aware of that he can’t live with the loss of his wife combined with the fact that he failed to find Laeddis, he decides to give up and let the doctors lobotomize him.