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.