Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller Shutter Island (2010) is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane and adapted to screen by Laeta Kalogridis. It opens in 1954, with US Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arriving at Boston’s Shutter Island by ferry on a foggy day. The remote island hosts the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. The US Marshals are brought to the hospital premises to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). She gets treatment in the hospital after drowning three of her own children and seems to have vanished from her room. A hurricane warning pushes Teddy and Chuck to stay over at the hospital and conduct their inquiry.
The hospital staff, led by psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), remain uncooperative. Teddy Daniels also believes that the hospital secretly runs sinister experiments on its inmates, like the Nazis, particularly to develop methods of mind control. Teddy is a WWII veteran who witnessed the terrible Nazi atrocities firsthand as he retains vivid memories of walking through the Dachau Concentration Camp. He is also burdened by personal tragedy and often dreams of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who was killed in a fire set by arsonist Andrew Laeddis. Interestingly, Teddy believes Andrew is in Ward C, home to the most violent and dangerous patients.
As the story unfolds, Teddy Daniels is increasingly plagued by disturbing visions, leading him to believe that the island’s lighthouse is the epicenter of the hospital’s nefarious actions. However, when Teddy finally breaks into the lighthouse, what he uncovers is entirely unexpected, something that turns his life upside down.
Dr. Cawley waits for Teddy in the lighthouse, and reveals the truth of what’s happening at the asylum in the last few days. Alongside Teddy, we begin to question and rethink the reality presented to us through Teddy’s perspective. In fact, Shutter Island has one of the most extraordinary ‘you-didn’t-see-it-coming’ endings in the history of cinema. It is wrought with hidden messages and gets better with each viewing.
“This place makes me wonder…which would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man”.
This haunting dialogue is from the final scene of “Shutter Island.” But let us focus on that very final scene in the film where the above quote has its home and what it really means. Be warned, spoilers ahead!
After Dr. Cawley’s elaborate attempt to rehabilitate Teddy, aka Edward Daniels, aka Andrew Laeddis (DiCaprio), by allowing him to play out his psychosis across Shutter Island comes to a climax in that masterful lighthouse scene, we appear at last to have a breakthrough. Edward, or Teddy, as he now accepts himself to be, seems to comprehend the reality of his life. We are told that Edward has had such breakthroughs many times before but has relapsed into his fantasy; such is the unbearable pain that the reality of his murdered family holds on him. He is stuck in a cycle of suffering and catharsis and subsequently regressing into his innocent alter ego, searching for the alleged arsonist Andrew Laeddis.
Dr. Cawley explains that Andrew Laeddis is an anagram of Edward Daniels, and Rachel Solando is an anagram of Dolores Chanal. It is his mentally ill wife, Dolores, who killed their three children. Subsequently, Edward killed his wife, and to repress the truth, he concocted an elaborate story of arson and Andrew Laeddis and chose to believe in the conspiracy theory surrounding the Ashecliffe Hospital.
But this time, the breakthrough feels different. So much is on the line. Dr. Cawley himself has staked his reputation within the medical community on this out-of-the-box approach to therapy. All those people on the island who have played their part in this elaborate role play with the hope that the island’s most dangerous patient – Edward Daniels – might be helped to embrace his reality. And here we are. THAT final scene. Edward is seated on the steps of the asylum’s inner entrance. The hurricane and the perpetual rain, symbolic of the storm raging within Edward’s own mind and which has beset the Island for days, has broken, and we can see sunlight. Edward is a picture of calmness. He seems to have accepted the truth of his terrible past.
Edward’s therapist, Dr. Sheehan (Ruffalo), greets him. He had taken up the role of his partner ’ Chuck’ since landing on the island. They exchange pleasantries, and Dr. Sheehan provides Edward with a cigarette. We are agonizingly waiting for any confirmation that the radical therapy has worked on Edward and that he is free from relapse. However, Edward, or Teddy, as he appears to be once more, reverts into his previous mannerisms, believing himself to once again be a US Marshal sent to discover the terrible secret of the island. “We got to get off this rock, Chuck,” he remarks to Dr. Sheehan. The experiment, like the attempts before, has failed.
Dr. Sheehan looks to Dr. Cawley, The Warden, and Dr. Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow), who are standing across the courtyard, waiting for confirmation on the outcome of their experiment. A rueful shake of the head confirms to Dr. Cawley his worst fear. The daring experiment to break from the old-school vicious psychiatric treatments has probably failed, and Edward’s fate is sealed. Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley conveys the sheer disappointment and heartbreak at this failure in expert fashion. He pauses, then turns to exchange brief words with his peers. The order is given. Edward will probably be lobotomized.
As we await the impending demise of our flawed protagonist, that line from the above returns to haunt us. In the midst of his familiar ramblings, it is almost brushed aside. But so calculated is the wording and its inherent meaning that Dr. Sheehan registers it subconsciously and snaps a look at his patient, Edward. In turn, and in the most vital and unforgettable act of the movie, Edward meets his eyes in a fleeting glance. This glance! This is the confirmation. Edward knows who he is. He knows what he has done. He’s cognizant of the horrors from his past and the attempts to create an escape through Teddy Daniels. The lucrative plan to reform him has worked.
Edward walks away from Dr. Sheehan. He meets the guards sent to escort him to his fate at the bottom of the stairs. For one final time, Edward looks to Dr. Cawley, the man who risked everything to reform him. He looks down, perhaps registering this truth, and finally walks into the distance ahead of those sent to escort him toward his lobotomy and to liberate himself from the harsh reality.
Although Edward has revealed this success in a cryptic manner to his therapist-turned-partner, he wilfully goes with the guards to be lobotomized. He has been cured of his psychosis, but the pain is simply too much of a burden to carry. Edward cannot face reality and instead chooses to be surgically removed from his past. In essence, Edward is choosing to die as a good man, a man who has come to terms with the truth of his own actions. For the first time in the film, it is his sanity that he is now attempting to hide from the world. He is content to perish after comprehending the truth rather than continue to live as the monster he believes himself to be.