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. :)
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.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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 Rule of 4 and Patient 67
The rule of 4 has to do with the anagram names Andrew invents for his fantasy world. “Edward (Teddy) Daniels” is an anagram of “Andrew Laeddis” and “Rachel Solando” is an anagram of “Dolores Chanal,” the maiden name of Andrew’s dead wife. Four names, get it? As for patient 67: Andrew Laeddis IS patient 67. As long as “Teddy Daniels” is looking for patient 67 he’ll never be able to find him, and his fantasy will be sustained.
“Rachel Solando” is also a play on “Rachel Laeddis”, the name of Andrew’s dead daughter. His daughter is also the same little girl who shows up in his Holocaust dreams, saying, “You should have saved me,” which is Andrew’s mind trying to work through the trauma of what happened. His daughter represents the truth – she’s the one thing Andrew can’t deny or forget. The nurse Dr. Cawley has pose as Rachel Solando is part of a therapy technique to get Andrew to remember his real wife – if you watch that scene again, the Cawley’s gamble almost works, but not quite. Andrew’s brain simply can’t handle the strain.
Final Confirmation From the Filmmakers
I was fortunate enough to attend the press junket for Shutter Island back when the movie was released, and had a chance to sit down with DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley and Martin Scorsese. The stars and director talked at great length about how difficult it was to film Shutter Island. The problem was that when they started shooting the film, they realized that upon first viewing the audience would have to believe that Dr. Cawley and Shutter Island could be something sinister, but upon second viewing you would have to be able to tell that everyone around Teddy is in on the role play game, and are trying to maintain the fantasy – though many of the staff and guards are not happy about it.
Upon viewing the film a second time and knowing how it ends, I have to say Scorsese and the cast did a great job. It’s all too obvious that the other characters know that Teddy is crazy, and here are a few tip-offs to help you see it:
- Watch the guards throughout the film. They get extremely edgy whenever “Teddy” is around, and clutch their guns a little tighter. This is especially true at the beginning when “The Marshals” come to the island. It’s because the guards know Teddy is a lunatic and they’re not exactly thrilled about the role play experiment. It’s also why they are less than enthused about looking for a Rachel Solando who doesn’t exist down by the ocean rocks.
- Pay attention to the staff interview scene. When Teddy and Chuck interview the nurses and orderlies it’s easy to see just how ridiculous the staff finds the interview. One nurse says something about how ‘far from normal’ their jobs are – she’s making an ironic joke because she’s talking to a lunatic dressed as a cop. In that scene, the staff are also not too enthused about the role play, and Dr. Sheehan / Chuck pushes them to answer Teddy’s questions. You’ll see what I mean.
- When Teddy interviews Mrs. Kearns (the “normal” insane lady), she talks about how great Dr. Sheehan is. There is a bit of awkward eye contact between her and “Chuck” because she’s talking about him! It’s also why she asks Chuck for water and he quickly accepts (it’s an awkward moment). Mrs. Kearns writes “run” on the paper she slips to Teddy because she knows he has an opportunity to escape while they’re doing the whole role play experiment. It’s also why she sounds “coached” about what to tell Teddy – she has been. As for the conspiracy about why Mrs. Kearns’ hand is empty when she goes to drink the water Chuck brings…she’s crazy, let’s not forget that. I doubt it was an error in editing.
- The creepy lady in the yard at the beginning of the film does the “shush” motion at Teddy because she knows him, knows that she’s playing a game and has been instructed not to spoil it. She’s a crazy lady enjoying a game, that’s all.
- When Teddy reveals to Dr. Naehring that he’s figured out the patient 67 riddle during a staff meeting, Naehring says “What are they doing here?” He’s genuinely annoyed that Dr. Cawley is letting Teddy/Andrew roam so freely.
- In Ward C Teddy is accosted by a loose prisoner and nearly strangles that prisoner to death. “Chuck” and a guard show up and drag the strangled man away. The guard tells Teddy that he can’t come along to the infirmary, while mumbling about how much trouble he’s going to be in – for letting a patient strangle another patient.
In the end, Shutter Island is a pretty clear-cut mystery. I realize that boiling it down to “Teddy is crazy” might not be as fun as some of the conspiracy theories out there, but the evidence is all over the film. Still, isn’t it fun when a film sparks so much debate, discussion and imagination? I would rather have that than another dumb, by-the-numbers movie on my hands – wouldn’t you?