Let’s get this out of the way.
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) really is Andrew Laeddis. He has been a psych patient at Ashecliffe for the past 24 months. He is in extreme and aggressive denial about what happened to his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) and their kids. When he gets lobotomized at the end of the movie—it’s a choice he makes while in a state of clarity. That’s why he asks Dr. Sheehan (aka Chuck, aka Mark Ruffalo), “Which would be worse? To live as a monster or die as a good man?”
That moment is meaningful as it’s a break from a delusional script that Sheehan and Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) clearly know very well. Which is why Sheehan reacts with such surprise. And says, “Teddy?” with a questioning tone. This is Shutter Island indicating to the viewer we need to think about who is present in that moment. Teddy or Andrew.
Teddy is the delusional and volatile persona created by Andrew as a defense mechanism to escape the pain of knowing he murdered his wife after she killed their kids.
Andrew is the smart, decent, good person who can’t handle the pain of knowing he murdered his wife after she killed their kids.
Once we’re clear that there’s no sinister mystery, that Teddy wasn’t tricked by the people at Ashecliffe to believe he’s Andrew, we can get to the biggest remaining questions. Why choose the lobotomy? And was there a real Rachel Solando in the caves?
Go ahead, lobotomy…me
The choice for the lobotomy makes sense when you remember how Andrew/Teddy feels about the mentally unhealthy. Our protagonist is often dismissive of the patients and unconvinced of the doctor’s.
Early on, after Cawley remarks about patients finding paintings calming, Teddy says, “Screw their sense of calm.”
Later on, Cawley explains the divide between old and new school therapy. The old school prefers surgical intervention, specifically the lobotomy—put an ice pick into the brain, tear out some nerves in the frontal lobe, and patients calm down. While the new school likes drugs, psychopharmacology. Same effect, different method.
Teddy asks Cawley what Cawley prefers. He says something along the lines of, “Try and understand, you might just reach them.” In the background, a patient throws a tantrum and needs restrained. Prompting Teddy to say, “These patients, huh?” It’s derisive, condescending.
In summation, Teddy lacks any kind of empathy for the mentally ill.
This manifests two other times. One, when interviewing a patient who cut the face off a young woman. The second, when in Ward C. The first instance is petty. As the patient’s speaking, Teddy drags a pencil across paper. The sound is consistent and grating. It’s the kind of the thing someone mentally healthy might be able to ignore, despite being annoyed. But the patient isn’t mentally healthy, and he freaks the hell out. Teddy enjoys making the guy uncomfortable. He relishes in the spite.
The second instance is violent. After the storm, power is out across the island. Teddy and Chuck sneak off to Ward C and encounter a dangerous patient on the loose. Separated from Chuck, Teddy gets jumped. The guy puts Teddy in a chokehold and rambles and raves. There’s danger, but how much? Dude seems like he really just wants someone to talk to about the hydrogen bomb. In response, Teddy beats hell out of him then strangles him, only stopping because Chuck intervenes. Had Chuck not arrived in time…
We come to find out that Teddy also assaulted George Noyce, who we see a few minutes later. It’s been weeks and Noyce is still messed up. Bruises all over his face. Cut lip. Cut cheek. It’s brutal.
You don’t have to be Freud to pick up on the fact Teddy is projecting self-hatred. He’s a mentally unwell person who refuses to accept the reality of his own mental health so takes his self-loathing out on others. This means that everything he externalizes represents an internalization.
With all that in mind, think about Andrew and the choice he’s faced with. He truly doesn’t believe he’ll get better. And also can’t stand what he’s become. This is why he’d rather “die” via lobotomy than continue on as a “monster.”
What is a monster?
I want to clarify that when Andrew talks about being a monster, I don’t think it’s meant as a general label for the mentally ill. Rather, it’s the culmination of one of Shutter Island‘s major themes.
Think back over the movie, and you may recall a lot of conversation about violence. Several times, characters wax philosophical about the ugliness and necessity of violence. Then we have an important juxtaposition between two events in Andrew’s life. Arriving at the Dachau concentration camp and seeing the inhuman treatment of the Jewish people by the Nazis. And coming home to find his wife in the aftermath of drowning their children.
In both cases, Andrew reacts with violence. Murderous violence. At Dachau, he and the other American soldiers line up and shoot the Nazis who had surrendered. At home, he has a moment of intense sadness with Dolores, who has clearly lost her mind, then shoots her in the stomach after she asks him to “set me free.”
Where is the line between good violence and bad violence? Does one even exist? Either way, once you’ve crossed into the world of the violent, can you ever find redemption?
I think this is what Shutter Island means by “monster.”
This is why you have Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) with his quote about “Men like you are my speciality. Men of violence.”
This is why you have the Ward C guy ranting about atolls and h-bombs, the result of science wielded by the violent.
It’s why you have the strange scene with the warden driving Teddy.
Warden: Did you enjoy God’s latest gift?
W: God’s gift. The violence. When I came downstairs in my home and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me a divine hand. God loves violence.
T: I hadn’t noticed.
W: Sure you have. [Chuckles]. Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor.
T: I thought God gave us moral order.
W: There’s no moral order as pure as this storm. There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours?
T: I’m not violent.
W: Yes you are. You’re as violent as they come. I know this because I’m as violent as they come. If the constraints of society were lifted and I was all that stood between you and a meal you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts. Wouldn’t you? Cawley thinks you’re harmless, that you can be controlled, but I know different.
T: You don’t know me.
W: Oh but I do.
T: No you don’t, you don’t know me at all.
W: Oh I know you. We’ve known each other for centuries. [Brief pause]. If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?
T: Give it a try.
W: That’s the spirit.
That scene can feel amazingly out of place. The warden isn’t a character who is developed. We see him once before and not again after. You could have just shown the car pick Teddy up and drop him off, cutting the conversation entirely. So why include it?
Because it’s thematically relevant. Teddy has, several times, rejected the idea he’s a violent person. He thinks of himself as a decent person. As an honorable United States Marshal. But even he can’t continue to ignore the evidence to the contrary. There’s an anger in him. A rage. And even though he refuses the warden’s labeling, at the end, you see the switch flip. Teddy meets the final challenge of “would you be able to stop me before I blinded you” with an aura of intensity that pleases the warden. Teddy has, finally, stopped his denial (foreshadowing what’s to come).
Violence is what makes monsters. Not illness. The warden is as much a monster as Teddy. And that kind of gets at one of the scariest parts of Shutter Island: monsters are everywhere. Not just in mental hospitals, asylums, and wards. They can be in positions of power. They can be in government. And what happens when they have time, influence, and resources?
This is why the Ward C patient says, “I don’t want to leave here, alright? I mean, why would anybody want to? We hear things here, about the outside world. About atolls. About H-bomb tests.” Even though this guy is supposed to be crazy, he’s right. The “outside” world. The world you and I exist in, is as crazy as anything going on at Ashecliffe. Crazier, even.
So Shutter Island isn’t just getting at the morality of the clinically insane. It’s speculating on the sanity of civilization at large. Andrew recognizes he’s become a monster, so does what he believes is necessary to no longer be part of the problem.
Rachel? [Batman voice] Rachellllll
Alright. What about Rachel? Not the one pretending to be patient 67. We know she’s a nurse taking part in Cawley’s plot to awaken Andrew and hopefully cure him of Teddy.
I’m talking about the random woman in the random seaside cave. What about her?
On the one hand, it’s easy to chalk her up to a figment of Teddy’s poor, strained psyche. He’s already been having visions of Dolores and full on conversations with her and some of the most cinematic fever dreams you’ll ever see on the big screen. We know he’s readily capable of hallucinations. For instance, in the lighthouse, he thinks he’s wielding a real gun but then looks at it again and it’s clearly a fake. Then he “shoots” Cawley and Sheehan, even sees the blood splash, but they’re standing their unharmed. Oh, and he thought he saw Chuck’s body down on the rocks, which is why he discovers the cave in the first place.
Once again, Teddy is capable of hallucinations.
The difference with Rachel is that all the previous hallucinations were momentary. They last less then a minute. Like the gun is real, then it’s fake. Or Dolores appears in random places she couldn’t possibly be, like inside Noyce’s cell. Rachel, though, is there when Teddy enters the cave and there when he wakes up the next morning. Maybe she’s a figment. If so, it’s a figment way more subtle than Dolores standing unnoticed in the middle of a psych ward in a bright yellow sundress.
It’s for one reason and one reason only that we see Rachel waking Teddy up: to make us believe she’s real.
Seriously, is she?
I’m asking you.
It’s the only thing in Shutter Island that I think is up for debate. Especially when you go back through the movie a second or third time (or in my case, a seventh). You can pick up a lot of little things that confirm Teddy’s a patient and everyone is in on Cawley’s performance.
Like in the opening arrival to the island, Teddy notes the guards seem on edge, to which the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch) replies: “We all are.” That’s because Teddy’s a violent patient who is on the loose, so to speak. It’s why none of the guards are actually searching for Rachel when we see them “searching.” It’s why the one patient waves at Teddy when Teddy first steps on the grounds: they know each other. It’s why Naehring is such a jerk: he doesn’t believe this will work. It’s why multiple people look at Chuck when they mention Dr. Sheehan.
There are a dozen other examples. If you pick up on them the first time you watch, they probably make you think Ashecliffe isn’t to be trusted. But once you know the truth, they confirm what Cawley’s doing. It’s awesome.
But the Rachel thing is the one detail that isn’t telegraphed. It’s the one detail that’s seemingly left completely open for interpretation.
Again, it’s easy to chalk up as a figment. Her name is an anagram of Dolores Chanal, Andrew’s wife. Just like “Edward Daniels” is an anagram of Andrew Laeddis. And it seems Andrew is at least somewhat aware of what he says and does as Teddy. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to say the normal Teddy things to Sheehan at the end. You’d think that if psychiatrist-on-the-run Rachel was real, we’d have some acknowledgement of it. Like Andrew acknowledging his illness but admitting Rachel didn’t feel like part of it. But there’s nothing like that. Which means we can assume Andrew accepts Cawley’s declaration Rachel was a hallucination.
And again, Teddy was down bad when he saw Rachel. He’s been off his meds and not handling it particularly well. And had just hallucinated Dolores in Ward C then Chuck’s body on the rocks. Seeing Rachel would, narratively, fall into the “rule of 3” (not to be mistaken with the movie’s rule of 4), that states things should happen in groups of three. She would be the climax in this string of active imaginings.
And because Andrew is alone and we’re isolated in his perspective, it’s easy to say Rachel’s presented more believably to the viewer because Teddy has no one to challenge his perception. After all, this is a Martin Scorsese movie, so it’s not short on leaning into cinematic language and the nuance of that language. Having Teddy’s most severe hallucination appear the most realistic is logical.
But on the other hand (only took me 13 paragraphs to get here), it would be fitting if Rachel were real as it stops the movie from being solely one-dimensional. As in, if Rachel is a hallucination, then Andrew is the problem and Ashecliffe is pretty innocent (allowing for the fact that in the 1950s lobotomies weren’t considered inhumane).
Being one-dimensional is not necessarily a bad thing or an impossible thing. Just because a story is straightforward doesn’t mean it can’t be amazing. Not everything has to be Donnie Darko or Fight Club or Mulholland Drive. For the most part, Scorsese has been a straightforward filmmaker. His movies have twists and turns in terms of what happens and how it happens (like The Departed), but they never leave you guessing. As opposed to how Christopher Nolan always tries to trick people (Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, Tenent). Darren Aronofsky, too (Pi, The Fountain, Black Swan, Mother!)
So there is an argument to be made that Rachel being real adds an important dimensionality to the story. And that her speech about “once you’re declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity—reasonable protests are denial, valid fears [are] paranoia” supports this by showing that not everything an insane person believes and experiences is false. That there can be truth in madness. It just gets dismissed. That argument is reinforced by Cawley having a script for everything else Teddy says but being surprised about the woman in the cave. His response is, “Your delusions are more severe than I thought.” Not, “You always bring her up.”
As much as I like that theory, and do think Rachel’s discussion about government experiments, MK Ultra, and the creation of “ghosts” fits into the thematics of Shutter Island, it would be wild for her to actually be named Rachel Solando. That anyone would have a name that’s an exact anagram of Andrew’s wife? Come on. That’s a bridge too far.
Of course, it’s more believable if you buy into the theory Edward was tricked and was never a patient. But you shouldn’t buy into that theory.
So is there an answer about Rachel?
Thankfully, yes. Yes there is.
Rachel, part 2—thank you for still reading
You may notice that water is ever-present in Shutter Island. And that fire ends up appearing several times. And that fire and water are opposites.
Given that the movie is based on a dichotomy between Teddy and Andrew, the water/fire dynamic should be read as a purposeful contrast that’s part of the core tension between Teddy and Andrew.
The connection is pretty explicit.
In Teddy’s (made up) memory, the tragedy occurred in fire.
But in reality, the tragedy involved water.
We even have that dream where Dolores is soaking wet but ash is falling all around her and Teddy. Dolores even turns to ash. Then Andrew wakes up with water leaking on him.
Fire is heavily present in most of Teddy’s dreams and version of events. Meaning that we should associate fire, in any form, with fiction. And water with reality. When you keep this symbolism in mind when re-watching, Shutter Island takes on a whole other layer of depth. The storm becomes symbolic. Chuck lighting Teddy’s cigarettes is symbolic. Teddy approaching Noyce’s cell in the near total darkness of Ward C and lightning match after match: that’s symbolic. Those matches going out is perfect, as Noyce is the first person to tell Teddy the truth rather than trying to keep up the performance.
“But Chris, Teddy saw Chuck’s body on the rocks then swept away by the tide. That was a hallucination involving water.”
Great point. But Chuck was a lie, right? He was just a character Sheehan was playing. So the body on the rocks, swept away by the tide, only reinforces the symbolism of water representing truth. As we never actually see “Chuck” again. The next time the character appears is in the lighthouse, as Dr. Sheehan.
With all that in mind, let’s return to the scene with Rachel. The two of them are in a cave. Huddled around…a fire.
I mean. Given what we know of the intentionality of the symbolism, we can’t ignore the fire and what that insinuates. Especially given the fact Teddy was just trying to find Chuck’s body, on the rocks, at the edge of the water. Now he seeks refuge from the water by sitting next to the fire.
In other words: Teddy has gotten too close to reality and is trying to find comfort in delusion. And this is the big one, right? The conspiracy that’s all-encompassing and goes right to the very top of the U.S. government. “Rachel” feeds into every fear and paranoia and delusion Teddy has. This is just another match he’s trying to light to keep the fiction going.
Speaking of lights…
To the Lighthouse
The lighthouse is another important symbol. We initially associate it with lobotomies and the unspoken horrors of Ashecliffe. Only to find out that nothing’s really in there. Cawley merely uses it as staging ground for the final encounter of Andrew’s radical treatment.
Since it’s associated with lobotomies, Scorsese uses the shot of the lighthouse as the last thing in the movie in order to represent Andrew’s fate. I think that’s brilliant. I think it’s beautiful.
But I think there’s another layer that I haven’t seen brought up in Shutter Island explanations and analyses.
A lighthouse is supposed to serve as a beacon in darkness for those who are out at sea. It’s artificial light. False fire.
Given how much Shutter Island focused on fire and water, there’s something deeply poetic in the image of a darkened lighthouse on the verge of the sea.
It’s not as simple as “the fire’s gone out” or “he is submerged.” While I said earlier Scorsese tends to be more straightforward in his storytelling, that doesn’t mean he’s not a bit more complicated in his thematics and exploration of morality and identity. This is the guy who made Taxi Driver, Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. All of which involve somewhat staggering moral complexities reinforced through cinematic language. Scorsese’s considered a master of the craft for a reason.
If you read the original Shutter Island novel by Dennis Lehane, it ends with no ambiguity. Andrew reverts to Teddy. Sheehan signals for the lobotomy. And that’s that. There’s no question about living a good man or dying a monster. There’s no lighthouse.
The lighthouse comes to represent not just the lobotomy but Teddy after the lobotomy. Empty. Darkened. Near the water, but not in it. Capable of light, but not flame. It’s a fate in-between the extremes. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Whoever decided to put that shot in, whether it was Scorsese, or screenplay writer Laeta Kalogridis, or cinematographer Robert Richardson, or all of them, or someone else completely: they have my deepest respect. Because moments like that are what elevate a good story to a cinematic masterpiece.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully you found some of the Shutter Island answers you were looking for. If you still have questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!