When it comes to movie endings, Martin Scorsese knows how to land a punch. His films are historic rides throughout many different genres. They take their characters and audience to the brink. One of the bleakest and most confounding of Scorsese's movie endings is from Shutter Island.
The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, and even George Noyce.
This thriller takes us to a secluded island where a mental patient has escaped. There's an investigation, a big reveal, and we're left with a lot of questions.
Questions about mental illness, role play, and much more.
Today, we're going to go over what happens in the plot of Shutter Island and analyze what happens at the end of Shutter Island. We'll talk about the characters, payoffs, and spoilers. For other posts like this check out our summary and analysis of The Green Knight, Dune, and The Arrival.
If you haven't seen the movie, I would go watch it and then come back.
Otherwise, let's dive right in.
Table of Contents
The Shutter Island Ending Explained
To explain Shutter Island answers, let's briefly go over the movie's plot, so we can answer if he was really mentally unwell or not.
Shutter Island Synopsis
Shutter Island is a 2010 American neo-noir psychological thriller film directed by Scorsese and written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 novel. It tells the story of U.S. Marshal Edward "Teddy" Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule. They travel to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island in the Boston Harbor. They're there to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando. She was incarcerated for drowning her three children.
The only clue is a note found hidden in Solando's room. "The law of 4; who is 67?" As the men investigate the crime, a massive storm rolls in and prevents their return to the mainland.
Things are suspicious from the start. When they talk to the staff, it's confrontational. Lead psychiatrist John Cawley refuses to turn over records. Solando's doctor left the island on vacation immediately after she disappeared, preventing them from interrogating him. There are parts of the hospital that are off-limits and they're not allowed to search. Like Ward C. As they talk to some patients, one writes the word "RUN" in Teddy's notepad.
Teddy starts to have migraine headaches that trigger visions of his experiences as a soldier during the liberation of Dachau. He has disturbing dreams of his wife, Dolores, who was killed in a fire set by an arsonist known as Andrew Laeddis. A vision of Dolores tells Teddy that Solando is still on the island, as is her killer, Laeddis. Teddy later explains to Chuck that locating Laeddis was his ulterior motive for taking the case. But all the workers at the asylum say Laeddis is not there, nor was he ever there.
After searching for clues, Teddy breaks into Ward C and talks to a patient who tells him some of the most severe cases are taken to be lobotomized at a lighthouse on the far side of the island. The patient warns that everyone on the island, including Chuck, is playing an elaborate game.
Teddy is unsure what to make of this information. He and Chuck head toward the lighthouse. Chuck disappears. Teddy thinks he sees Chuck's dead body on the rocks. He finds a cave. Inside is a woman who claims to be the real Rachel Solando—an undercover reporter. She says they had her on psychotropic medication and that the doctors at the island were trying to perfect mind control. But when she went to report this fact they had her committed to the island.
'Shutter Island'Credit: Warner Brothers
The Shutter Island Lighthouse
Teddy leaves her and then makes his way to the Shutter Island lighthouse. There he discovers Cawley waiting for him. Cawley explains that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, their "most dangerous patient."
He was sent to the island after murdering his manic-depressive wife, Dolores. It turns out that Dolores drowned their three children. There is a big reveal that Edward Daniels (Teddy) and Rachel Solando are anagrams of Andrew Laeddis and Dolores Chanal. Cawley tells us that Andrew attacked the patient he talked to in Ward C two weeks earlier for calling him Laeddis. That he's retreated into being Teddy to protect his own mental state.
Teddy is in this fragile state because he saw signs his wife was nuts earlier when she burned down their first apartment together, but he never sought help for her. They just moved to a lake house, where Dolores' issues manifested in the murder of their children.
The "investigation" was an attempt by Cawley to break Teddy out of his funk, get him to accept reality, and deal with his issues. The whole island was in on this elaborate hoax. And Chuck is still alive, but he's actually Dr. Lester Sheehan. There was even a nurse posing as Rachel Solando.
All of this overwhelms Teddy, and he faints, unable to handle the reality shown to him.
'Shutter Island'Credit: Warner Brothers
The Shutter Island Ending
Teddy wakes up in the hospital under the watch of Cawley, Sheehan, and the nurse who played Rachel Solando. Teddy tells them the truth they told him in a coherent manner, but they are terrified he will soon regress. And it is revealed they've done this to him before. Teddy is warned that this is the last chance; otherwise, they will have to lobotomize him.
We pick up with Teddy later sitting next to Sheehan. But Teddy calls him "Chuck," saying they must leave the island. This causes Sheean to signal Cawley, letting him know Teddy has sunk back into his mania. The warden says Teddy should be taken to be lobotomized.
But before he goes to leave, Teddy asks Sheehan if it would be worse "to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?"
Sheehan calls Teddy by the name Teddy, but he doesn't respond. Leaving room for us to think he actually knows he's Andrew but wants to be relieved from the pain and guilt he feels.
Shutter Island Twists
There are so many twists inside this movie, it's hard to pin one down. Obviously, everyone wants to talk about the ending, and we will. But what about all the brilliant twists that get lost in the sauce of the big twist?
So much of Teddy's investigation has to work two ways. You have to have it make sense as a deputy marshall, but then it all has to retroactively make sense when you figure out it's a ruse. There's so much plant and payoff—it's dizzying.
First, I want to point out all the clues in the investigation that made this final big reveal pay off. We see the burning visions, we can tell Teddy is haunted, we see the patients playing into the investigation, and we get an explanation for why the staff wanted to be doing anything aside from having a patient attack them and ask questions. Especially when we learn they've all done this before.
Of course, this all builds to the biggest twist of them all.
'Shutter Island' behind the scenesCredit: Warner Brothers
The Ending of Shutter Island Explained
How does Shutter Island end? At the very end of the movie, the big question is whether or not Teddy knows he's Andrew. Is he marching himself to the lobotomy to relieve his pain, or is he going as an unwitting person, buried in his own fantasy because his grief is insurmountable?
To their credit, DiCaprio and Scorsese have never actually addressed these questions. But a few other people have...
What Really Happened in Shutter Island
To say there have been differing opinions over the ending of this movie would be an understatement. That's mostly because the final lines, "Which would be worse–to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?" do not appear in the book. This has caused much debate and analysis.
Professor James Gilligan of New York University was Scorsese's psychiatric adviser on the film. His takeaway for the line was that the words mean, "I feel too guilty to go on living. I'm not going to actually commit suicide, but I'm going to vicariously commit suicide by handing myself over to these people who're going to lobotomize me."
That's a bit of a dark ending, but I think it's the one I side with.
While the line was not in Lehane's novel, he has the opposite opinion of the meaning. Lehane actually approved the line during the film’s script process and told MTV in an interview that the question is just a “momentary flash” of sanity, but that Teddy stays Teddy at the end.
"If he were to say it as a statement [and not a question], then there’s no solution here but to stop the lobotomy,” Lehane said. “Because if he shows any sort of self-awareness, then it’s over, they wouldn’t want to lobotomize him. My feeling was no, he’s not so conscious he says, ‘Oh I’m going to decide to pretend to be Laeddis so they’ll finally give me a lobotomy.’ That would just be far more suicidal than I think this character is. I think that in one moment, for a half a second sitting there in that island he remembered who he was and then he asks that question and he quickly sort of lets it go. That was my feeling on that line.”
'Shutter Island'Credit: Warner Brothers
Shutter Island Ending Analysis
While there are many Shutter Island theories, a lot depends on your analysis of the movie. Do you think it's a movie about someone who chooses to quit dealing with grief, or is it a movie about a grief so bad it encapsulates your entire life? There's a multitude of evidence to support both ideas, so it really comes down to you.
Where do you stand on the film? Let us know in the comments.