**In this series, I will be discussing films and their endings that lift the veil on the secrets the viewer missed. This includes diving into some spoilers, so read no further if you want to keep the element of surprise.**
It’s 1954. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) looks up to a mirror of himself, just catching his breath from his recent bout of boat sickness. Water dripping from his face, Teddy murmurs to himself “Pull yourself together, Teddy. Pull yourself together.” Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are U.S Marshall’s on their way to Shutter Island, an island off of Boston solely inhabited by Ashecliffe Hospital. A patient named Rachel Solando has gone missing and the Marshalls’ are determined to find her. However, this case is personal for Teddy. He’s been pushing to investigate Shutter Island since his wife was murdered by a madman named Andrew Laeddis, hoping for the chance to bring him to justice. Once they arrive, however nothing quite feels right to Teddy and he starts questioning what’s really going on at Ashecliff Hospital. This is Shutter Island.
In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese takes a break from mafia storytelling to bring visual representation to Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Anyone familiar with a Scorsese picture knows that nothing is ever an accident with Marty and he wants you to pay attention to the details. In a normal Scorsese film, the revelation isn’t anything more than a slight realization. With Shutter Island, however, he takes his attention to detail to a whole different level. But let’s start with the clues.
Upon his initial welcome to Ashecliff Hospital, Teddy sees through most of the staff and realizes that he and Chuck are being fed a script shared among the hospital’s patients and staff. They’re introduced to the patient who went missing, Rachel, but her details don’t add up. Still looking for revenge with Laeddis, Teddy continues digging around, hoping to uncover more about what Rachel and the hospital management may be hiding. The two Marshalls interrogate an older patient in the cafeteria, who seems to be uncomfortable. Upon offering her a glass of water, Chuck leaves and misses that she writes the word “run” in Teddy’s journal. Teddy is confused, but continues his line of questioning. The patient then takes a drink from the cup, but there’s no glass of water in her hands. When she sets it back down in another shot, we see the empty glass. Was this a mistake by Scorsese, and how could he have missed it? Just hang on, we’re not quite done.
Plagued by nightmares usually involving fire, Teddy is haunted by his memories of war, love, and losing his wife at the hands of a murderer. These nightmares cause headaches for Teddy but the staff offers him some pain reliever, despite insisting that everything with Rachel is under control and that he and Chuck should leave. Unconvinced, Teddy refuses and talks Chuck into staying. After all, Chuck is newer to the force and couldn’t even remove his gun from the holster when they met with security. Teddy is the brains of this operation, but he’s getting frustrated with Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) over his failure to provide patient records for Rachel and Andrew Laeddis. Teddy believes Rachel is still missing and that management had a staff member pose as her so the police wouldn’t discover the hospital’s darker operations.
As time goes on, a horrible hurricane strands everyone on the island, prompting Teddy to investigate further while the staff is busy keeping everyone safe. Teddy is still haunted by his memories and begins to feel like he is losing his mind, visualizing his wife inside jail cells and convinced that Laeddis is tormenting him. Chuck falls off of a cliff and dies, leaving Teddy to worry that all of this investigating was for nothing. Suddenly, he finds someone hiding from the storm and discovers her to be the real Rachel, who ran from the hospital after discovering that they perform lobotomies on patients who don’t cooperate. Rachel reveals that the operations happen inside the lighthouse and all of the answers he seeks lie inside.
Once inside the lighthouse, Teddy is confronted by Dr. Crawley, who has been waiting for him. He explains that Teddy isn’t actually a U.S Marshall but Andrew Laeddis himself. With whiteboard in hand, Dr. Crawley claims that Teddy has created the persona Edward Daniels persona and named him as an anagram of his real name. Even Rachel Solando was an anagram for his wife’s name, Dolores Chanal. Teddy is in disbelief over whatDr. Crawley is attempting to pass off as the truth, but then Chuck walks in wearing a suit. Chuck admits that he has been Teddy’s therapist at Ashecliff and that they had were all part of a large role-play experiment meant to fulfill Teddy’s made-up fantasy of catching Andrew Laeddis. We close on Teddy, fully participating in being a patient at Ashecliff, but still unconvinced he is really Laeddis.
Now, normally a twist like this would leave audiences feeling confused about what really happened. Could it be open- ended? Was the hospital lying to keep their procedures under wraps? Remember that this is a Martin Scorsese film, which by name recognition alone lessens the chance that anything was left in by accident. With that said, let’s look back at the clues.
There are two levels of symbolism surrounding Teddy: fire and water. When met with fire, Teddy is reveling in what he wants to be true. The warmth represents comfort and safety from the unknown. So when we see Teddy near fire, we know he is seeing what he wants to see and not what’s actually there, choosing comfort over truth. Remember when Teddy found the real Rachel seeking shelter from the hurricane over a fire? Or when Teddy remembered his wife, Dolores, burning in their apartment? Those were all hallucinations he convinced himself were real. But then what was real? This brings us to our second level of symbolism: water.
If fire represents the lies Teddy tells himself, water must symbolize the truth he’s desperate to avoid hearing. This would explain the scene where the patient was drinking from nothing, but then puts down an empty glass. The shot is from Teddy’s perspective and suggests that he chose not to see the water- only the patients’ hands and the empty glass. This also shines a light on Teddy’s sea sickness in the opening scene: his face covered with water as he tells himself to pull it together. The symbolism of fire and water fills in Shutter Island‘s missing gaps and hints at the conclusion we were all afraid of: Teddy really is Andrew Laeddis and refuses to believe he was capable of killing his wife. Of course, this is after he realizes that she killed their children by drowning them (yet another example of water).
Our final look at Teddy suggests that he may be aware of his horrible misdeeds, but chooses to live as the innocent detective. As he sits with Chuck, now revealed to be his therapist, Teddy asks “Which is worse: living as a monster or dying a good man?”. Chuck is stunned, knowing that Teddy is opting for a fate where he no longer has to remember his true past. Teddy walks away with doctors and orderlies, implying his acceptance that death in delusion is better than living with your trauma.
Shutter Island is a haunting thriller that benefits from its secrets. Even with the pieces filled in, Scorsese crafted a puzzle worth revisiting, welcoming all who seek new details and puzzle pieces they may have missed along the way.