‘Shutter Island’ is an everyday classic. Martin Scorsese’s near-perfect film is a first-rate production set on a secluded island with all the elements of a cracker jack. Leonardo DiCaprio takes center stage as Teddy Daniels, a Marshall who investigates a patient missing from the facility. Mark Ruffalo co-stars as partner Chuck Aule, while Ben Kingsley plays the role of Dr. John Cawley, the head psychiatrist at the facility.
Mr. Scorsese’s polished craftsmanship gives ‘Shutter Island’ a classic noir look and feel. The narrative is also a complex story of human emotions. The form in which Mr. Scorsese explores Teddy’s angst, regret, and pain, also gives way to a taut thriller.
For most parts, we are kept in the dark about the truth. Without knowing it, we flow in the opposite direction with Teddy. The twist ending isn’t anything like what mainstream cinema offers, not only in the way the complexion of the story changes but also in the way the viewer’s perception of all elements of the story changes. Not many filmmakers can do it – not without disrupting their rhythm. Mr. Scorsese, though, is in a league of his own. This explainer dives deep into the various plot points that need some clarifications, and of course, the ending that caught us all flat-footed.
Shutter Island Overview
In brief, ‘Shutter Island’ is about a delusional patient, Andrew Laeddis, who still thinks he is a US Marshall. Dr. Cawley heads a program at Ashcliffe, a facility for the mentally ill with a criminal history. He organizes a big role-play – an experiment – to prove that his method of treating his patients works against the traditional methods of capitulating them with intrusive surgeries.
For the made-up world, Rachel Solondo – a fictional patient – is created and reported missing, to invite Teddy’s investigation. Because he has been a former marshal, he uses his experience and training to conduct a routine process. The film ends when he learns the truth but does Cawley get his wish is the real question. Read on to know more!
Why is Teddy a patient at the facility and what is his history?
As revealed in the lighthouse, Teddy (DiCaprio) is actually Andrew. In reality, it was his wife, Dolores (who was herself a depressed woman) that murdered their three children by drowning them. She had earlier set fire to their apartment in the city. We see flashbacks of the fire that consumed it. Teddy came back to find that his kids’ bodies were floating in the lake behind their house. In a fit of rage, he killed his wife. Subsequently, he became a part of Dr. Cawley’s experiment at Ashcliffe and was admitted to the island.
The experiment’s condition was that using this role play, Andrew would realize his real identity and come to terms with his actions. The only alternative, if it were to fail, was a lobotomy. This is why it is so important for Cawley.
The Rule Of 4 And Patient 67
When Teddy first inspects Rachel’s room at the facility, he finds a small piece of paper hidden beneath the floor. He notes down its content and that is where we first hear of this. At the time, the mystery around patient 67 seems to be related to Rachel Solondo. But Cawley clarifies that including her, there are a total of 66 patients at Ashcliffe. So who was this 67th patient?
The answer turns out to be Teddy himself. He is actually the final patient. Cawley and Sheehan had hoped that once he sees it, Teddy will recollect that he is a part of the role play. This would have proved the former’s experiment successful at that instant. But Teddy is already knee-deep into his former avatar that he cannot realize it.
As far as the rule of four is concerned, it refers to the four identities of Teddy, his wife Dolores, and the anagrams of their names he stitches together in his fantasy. Andrew, Edward, Rachel, and Dolores are the four. It is again another clue that Cawley uses to guide Teddy in the right direction in his experiment.
Who is the “second” Rachel Solondo?
The question still remains: who was the person that Teddy met in the caves? We see that the name is an anagram for his wife’s name, Dolores. Another interesting detail that we learn on a rewatch is that Teddy’s daughter’s name was also Rachel. He loved her dearly, as the flashbacks reveal. The second Rachel proclaims herself to be the ‘real’ Rachel (played by Patricia Clarkson), a former doctor at the facility. Rachel is forced to change her position every day in order to stay hidden and survive the searches that the authorities conduct at night. At least, that is what she tells Teddy.
She also tells Teddy that the Lighthouse is in fact the place where doctors from Ashcliffe conduct lobotomies against the patient’s will. For him, all the answers will be found in that place. The tower is a destination for Teddy that represents illumination and the revelatory power of the truth, which Teddy’s psychological delusions prevent him from acknowledging. The second Rachel is a specter from Teddy’s imagination.
If you notice carefully, everything she says is what Teddy has either spoken about before in the movie or believes to be true. There is no new information that is passed on by the second Rachel. The cigarettes, the substance that controls the mind, the lighthouse; everything stems from Teddy’s perception of Ashcliffe. Clarkson’s character is not real, but her brief cameo certainly added a lot of vigor to the plot – when you first watched it.
Bonus Segment: Listing the clues that ‘Shutter Island’ gives us about the truth
This segment is unique as we list out all the instances that actually revealed the truth about Teddy. At first viewing, it would have been only possible for the rarest of geniuses to spot them. Martin Scorsese sprinkles them so seamlessly and creates such a compelling portrait of the film as a thriller, you don’t even dare to think twice.
Before they even went in, Chuck’s inability to get his gun holster off his belt raises suspicions. It is quickly shot down as an honest mistake to both us and Teddy. Next up is the lady in the yard – the one who smiles at them and puts a finger on her lips. It is quite apparent to her that they’re playing a game and she has a part to play. All of them have to keep up their appearances and she is no different.
The very first thing one notices on a re-watch is how Scorsese brings the uniformed guards into focus. Every time they are around Teddy, they stand at attention, anticipating some crazy move from Teddy. They’re tense and have a hand on their rifles, in case something goes wrong. They still still see Teddy as a patient with a “violent criminal history”. Even during the initial search by the rocks, the men seem dull and less enthused to be made to work so hard for just one patient’s sake. They feel it is not worth the trouble.
To this effect, the scene where Teddy and Chuck interview the orderlies and the patients also showcase the same. In neat, single profile shots, Mr. Scorsese pulls off a Houdini. Each time that Chuck is in the frame, although he doesn’t speak, there are no guards behind him. When Teddy is in the frame, there are always two in the background, standing there with hands on the rifles. The conversations too give away the ploy – almost – to the audiences and Teddy himself. The entire scene looks so plastic and ironically well-acted, that you think of yourself as a dumb-wit for not seeing it before.
Mrs. Kearns is the most interesting of all the patients. She reaches out to Teddy, writing “run” on a note, while also making a pass at Sheehan when she glowingly talks about his disposition and behavior.
When the rain washes over the island and a few of the prisoners escape, it is time for the mysterious ward. Chuck and Teddy are mostly together but in the middle, there is a scene where the former is called away by another guard to take a patient to the infirmary. He dismisses Teddy because he is a patient and is angry with him for “strangling another patient”. Finally, George Noyce.
Shutter Island Ending Explained
“Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” This confusing question and smile make up Shutter Island’s confusing, haunting ending. By the time we reach the end, Teddy’s descent into madness almost stands complete. Scorsese has already played his hand, visually, where Teddy resembles an escaped patient, struggling with his illness and scared of knowing the truth, than a reputable US marshal with a quick wit. The reveal of the role-play aside, we will focus more on what the statement means. There is a time between the reveal and this statement when Teddy regains his sanity. He recollects every detail of his actual life. Teddy lapses into this loop of going back into his previous life because of how traumatized he was due to Dolores’ actions.
Teddy is indeed a man of violence but does try to run away from what he did and what had happened. When he regains his sanity at that moment, he learns that this is the second time he has slipped into being Edward Daniels. Given his history and urge to run away from who he really is, he feels that falling back again into the trap would be detrimental.
Instead, he chooses to “die as a good man” (ergo Edward Daniels) rather than keep “living his life as a monster” who killed his wife and, indirectly, let her murder his children. That is why he feigns falling back into the delusional Edward so that the lobotomy process is performed on him and he no longer had to live with the burden of those nightmares. Even his history as a soldier torments him, making the tag of a “violent man” something for us to ponder over.