Shutter Island is a fantastic film. You will notice a lot of similarities in the character that Leo plays in Inception and this one – struggling with the memories of a wife who has passed away. While the movies are both wicked, they are very different. Shutter Island is not science fiction. It’s directed by Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and Michelle Williams in prominent roles. I got a lot of requests for this movie’s explanation. I finally got down to writing it. Seat belts on. Here’s the explanation of the plot the movie Shutter Island, and there is a section at the end focused on the Shutter Island ending, spoilers ahead.
Shutter Island Plot Explanation
I’m going to go through the plot from start to the Shutter Island ending linearly. While this will destroy the awesomeness of the story-telling, it becomes a lot easier to understand.
So, Andrew Laeddis (Leo), a decorated Army veteran (for the liberation of Dachau). He later was a U.S Marshal and was married to Dolores (Michelle) who he loved very much. They had three kids. Dolores was insane, manic-depressive and suicidal. People tried to tell Andrew that he needs to get help for his wife. Andrew drank and kept away ignoring what people had to tell him. One day, Dolores purposely set fire to their apartment so they moved to the lake house. On a day when Andrew was out for work, Dolores drowns her three children in the lake. When Andrew returns, he is horrified at the sight of his three dead children. He blames himself for not getting Dolores help in time. He blames himself for the death of his children. Insanity takes over and Andrew shoots Dolores dead.
Andrew goes completely insane and his mind is unable to face what he’s done. As a result, he is admitted in Ward C in the psychiatric facility (Ashecliffe) at Shutter Island. Ward C is where they keep the most dangerous patients. Because Andrew was trained and violent he was the most dangerous of them all. Dr. John Cawley (Ben) is treating Andrew. Dr. Lester Sheehan (Mark) is Andrew’s primary psychiatrist. They have been treating Andrew for over two years. Because of the nature of the violence, the board wants to lobotomize Andrew.
Edward Daniels – An Alternate Personality
The trauma was so intense that Andrew Laeddis has created an alternate reality for himself where he is Edward “Teddy” Daniels. Edward Daniels is an anagram of Andrew Laeddis. In his fantasy, Edward Daniels is a U.S Marshal who is not a patient. He is a cop who’s investigating a case in Shutter Island. In his fantasy, his wife Dolores was not insane. She dies in an apartment fire. The person responsible for this fire is a man named Andrew Laeddis. Edward has no children in this fantasy of his. His mind keeps his love for his dead wife intact and creates an alternate character for himself called Edward Daniels. His mind also extracts out a bad guy by the Andrew Laeddis. According to Edward, Laeddis was taken to Shutter Island and there was no word of him after. Edward has spun a conspiracy theory around the happenings in Shutter Island and wants to expose it.
Over the course of the treatment, there has been a moment when Andrew came back to his senses. He came out of his insanity but was only for a short moment. He regressed after that. Dr. Cawley swears before the board that he will execute a cutting-edge role-play where he will let Andrew play out his fantasy and bring him back. The board agrees. Dr. Cawley believes that by letting Andrew play out the fantasy he will come to realize how untrue, how impossible it is.
Who George Noyce is in Reality
Noyce is also a patient in Ward C, nothing more. Two weeks before they begin the role-play, Andrew ends up beating Noyce to a pulp. The reason is Noyce calls him Laeddis. He beats up Noyce because he would do anything to not be him. Of course, Edward/Andrew doesn’t remember any of this.
Who George Noyce is in the Fantasy
Edward has created a backstory to Noyce. A nice college kid. Socialist. He gets offered some money to do a psych study. After that, he starts seeing dragons everywhere. He almost beats his professor to death. Ends up in Ashecliffe, Ward C. They release him after one year. Two weeks on the mainland, he walks into a bar, stabs three men to death. His lawyer pleads insanity, but Noyce, he stands up in the courtroom and he begs the judge for the electric chair. Anywhere but a mental hospital. Judge gives him life in Dedham Prison. Based on this, Edward concludes that they are experimenting on people on Shutter Island.
Rachel Solando in Reality
Rachel Solando is the anagram of Dolores Chanal. This is another person Andrew’s mind has made up. In reality, there is no Rachel Solando.
Rachel Solando in the Fantasy
Edward gets a call to go investigate a missing patient by the name Rachel Solando in Ashecliffe. She is a war widow who has killed all three of her children. Edward takes up the case to expose the evil and heads to Shutter Island. Rachel Solando is a character made up by Edward’s mind.
Water and Fire
You will notice that water and fire play two important elements in Shutter Island. Water, because Andrew’s kids drowned in a lake. You will observe that water makes Andrew/Edward very uncomfortable throughout the film. His mind blocks out water as much as it can. Fire, because the apartment was burnt down. His mind doesn’t block out the fire because he doesn’t blame himself for the fire in the apartment. He blames a fictional character called Andrew for it.
Chuck in Reality
Chuck is Dr. Lester Sheehan. Andrew’s primary psychiatrist. He is role-playing.
Chuck in the Fantasy
Chuck is Edward’s partner who is assigned on the case. Edward believes that he has never met Chuck before. This is where Shutter Island begins. Somewhere before this is where the role-playing begins too. We aren’t told when exactly. Edward is throwing up because the water makes him feel sick. Remember, this is not seasickness, Edward/Andrew can’t deal with water. Edward tells Chuck about his wife and her death in a fire accident.
The Fantasy of Shutter Island
Edward and Chuck land up in Shutter Island. The captain tells them that a storm is coming. We’ll talk about the storm in a bit. At the island, they are both escorted by the guards. The guards seem very much on the edge. Rightfully so, many of these guards have been beaten up by Edward (Andrew). They are also part of the role-play. Edward and Chuck are told that Ward A is where they keep the male patients. Ward B is where the female patients are. Ward C is for the most dangerous and is off limits. The guard takes away their firearms. A point to note here is that their fire arms are merely toys. Edward takes out his holster and Chuck struggles with his and finally pulls it out. Chuck (Dr. Sheehan) has no prior experience with guns, hence he struggles.
Edward and Chuck meet with Dr. Cawley. They talk about Rachel Solando. Dr. Cawley plays his part in the role-play and gives information of the missing patient. He talks about her killing her children. Edward has a headache so he asks for an aspirin and takes it. Dr. Cawley goes on to explain that Rachel still believes that her children are alive and this place is her home in the Berkshires. She believes we’re all deliverymen, milkmen, postal workers. And that to sustain the delusion that her children never died, she’s created an elaborate fictional structure, and she gives us all parts to play in that fiction. This is, in fact, what is happening with Andrew/Edward but little does he know. Dr. Cawley mentions that she disappeared from her locked room. On visiting her room Edward finds a note saying – “Law of 4. Who is 67?”. The note is kept there as part of the role play. The docs and staff already know about the fantasy, they’ve been hearing details about it for 2 years now.
Edward asks for access to personnel files. Dr. Cawley his dodging on purpose. This is to fuel the conspiracy in Edward’s mind. Edward demands to speak with all the staff. They are assembled after dinner. The deputy warden, on purpose, is dodging the search in a particular cave and the light house. He unconvincingly mentions that the caves are not reachable and the lighthouse has been searched. Again, the cave and lighthouse are part of the fantasy that they have been hearing for two years. This too, fuels the Shutter Island conspiracy theory.
At the meeting, Edward gets to know that a staff by the name Glen went on an unscheduled bathroom break. This could have been the moment that Rachel Solando has escaped. This entire staff meeting is part of the role play. They are playing along with the fantasy. They also mention that before she went to her room she was in a group therapy session. They mention that a Dr. Sheehan lead the discussion. Edward doesn’t associate Chuck with Dr. Sheehan. He mentions that they must talk to Dr. Sheehan. Dr. Cawley says that is not possible as Dr. Sheehan is out on a holiday. Edward asks to talk over a phone.
So here’s the thing about the storm. There isn’t one. It’s just raining. But remember Andrew/Edward has problems with water. The storm is part of his fantasy. The violent nature of the storm is only in his head. The staff plan the rest of the props to amplify the fact about this storm. Again, this is a detail from the fantasy that they have been hearing for 2 years. Hence they add it to the role-play. Think about it, the staff could never time a storm into the role-play.
Because of the storm, they are unable to reach Dr. Sheehan on phone. Dr. Cawley invites Edward and Chuck over for drinks at his place. There they meet Dr. Jeremiah Naehring. He is a senior doc, who is also part of the role play. He purposely gives off evil Nazi vibes. He brings up Edward’s defense mechanisms to trigger lack of trust which in turn amplifies the conspiracy theory. Edward demands the files of the staff. They are denied yet again. Edward gets irritated and states that the investigation is done and they will be leaving by the ferry in the morning.
Edward later tells Chuck that he had bluffed. Edward believes that the Rachel had help getting out of her cell and he believes the next morning will be different. They will get more information on the case. Edward then has a dream. Dolores appears in his dream. Dolores says that both Rachel and Laeddis are still in Shutter Island. Dolores then burns to ashes.
Edward wakes up from his nightmare. Next morning, he asks to interview the patients in Rachel’s group therapy. Given the storm has taken out any possibility of a ferry, they’d rather continue the investigation. They begin interviewing. The people who are being interviews are all part of the role-play. You can see that Edward can’t stand the fact that the folks with the mental illness have caused harm to innocent folks. He hates them for being criminals regardless of the state of their minds. This is the exact reason he can’t face his own crime. This is the reason the personality Edward has been created. He asks if any of the patients know Andrew Laeddis. They eventually speak with a Mrs. Kearns. A lady who axed her husband to death. When she’s asked about Dr. Sheehan, she glances to Chuck and asks for water. When Chuck is away, she quickly scribbles RUN on Edward’s note. This is all planned. This is all meant to grow the conspiracy theory. When Chuck gets her water, you notice that she has no glass in her hands. While initially, you think that is her craziness kicking in, we are shown her keeping down an empty glass. This is Edward/Andrew suppressing the water. Remember water is his enemy? This glimpse gives us an insight into how much Andrew/Edward can’t stand his reality. Edward then asks about Andrew Laeddis. The lady says she’s never heard of him with a very suspicious tone. As if she were hiding something. All part of the act. Also, she understands she is in front of the most dangerous patient there is. Her nervousness is real.
Edward buys the act. He thinks they were all coached. That they all said things that they were instructed to say. Chuck asks Edward who Andrew Laeddis was. Why he was asking about him. Edward then tells Chuck that he took on this Shutter Island case specifically because he is after Andrew, the maintenance guy who set fire to this apartment. The guy who was responsible for his wife’s death. He has created a face for Andrew Laeddis – “Ugly-looking son of a bitch. Huge scar from his right temple down to his left lip”. Edward says he saw a news about him about being sent to prison and then transferred here. Then he disappeared.
While the two are out, the storm hits harder and they take shelter in a place. Remember, there is no storm. It’s all make-believe. Edward further explains that he’s not here to kill Laeddis. He says that during the war, he has killed German soldiers who had surrendered. He’s had enough of murder. Edward continues to explain his conspiracy theory that Ashecliffe was specially funded by the US government. He explains that this place conducts experiments on human minds. He also brings up George Noyce and how he went mental and landed up here. Edward wants to blow the lid off Ashecliffe. Chuck fuels the conspiracy saying that Edward didn’t get lucky to land this case. Edward was being too nosey and was hence chosen to come to this island to be disposed of. Chuck says now he too is trapped with Edward. That there is no shred of information that Rachel even existed. It’s a trap. The deputy warden finds them and comes to get them.
They are taken back to the quarters and are given staff clothes as their own are wet. They are also given a fresh pack of cigarettes on purpose. They are taken to a meeting of the staff and doctors on what they need to do to prepare in case the storm becomes too intense. Obviously, this is all creating the illusion of a hurricane in Edward/Andrew’s head. They also talk about the fact that there are 24 patients in Ward C and 42 in Ward A & B. Edward puts this together to state that the note Rachel wrote talked about 67. 24 + 42 is 66. Edward says Rachel was talking about a 67th patient on Shutter Island. Right after, Dr. Cawley tells Edward that Rachel is no longer missing, that she’s been found.
They go to meet Rachel. Rachel’s (Emily) role is being played by one of the staffs. She plays her role of a crazy lady who’s killed her children quite well. This really shakes Edward as she refers to him as Jim – her dead husband. Dr. Cawley says that they found her by the light house. This event gives Edward a migraine. Dr. Cawley gives him pills to take care of the pain.
Because of the role-play, Andrew/Edward has been off his regular medication. This is causing withdrawal. The first step is the headaches. The next would be shaky hands. He’s kept off the meds on purpose.
Edward is taken down to the basement and put on a bed. Just then he see’s the warden who looks to be an ex-military prick according to Edward. He goes to sleep and has another nightmare. He sees a little girl who says “You should have saved us all”. That little girl the youngest of his children. He’s blocked that out. Then he sees a man with a scar who he calls Laeddis. This is a fictional character. Rachel appears asking for help with the dead children. And tells him to find Laeddis again.
Shutter Island’s Ward C – George Noyce
Edward wakes up. The generator has apparently failed and all the crazies are running loose. Edward and Chuck decide to sneak into Ward C. Edward is attacked by a patient who he then beats up. Chuck stops him. Edward continues on into Ward C. He can hear voices now. One of the crazies talks to Edward. Initially, Edward thinks it is Laeddis. But it turns out to be Noyce. Remember that a couple of weeks ago Edward/Andrew beat up Noyce for calling him Laeddis.
Noyce: It’s about you! And Laeddis. That’s all it’s ever been about.
Edward: Who did this to you, George?
Noyce: You did.
Noyce: This is a game. All of this is for you. You’re not investigating anything. You’re a rat in a maze. And they’re gonna take me to the lighthouse. They’re gonna cut into my brain.
Over here, Noyce is saying what he believes happens in the lighthouse. His beliefs come from the stories Andrew/Edward has been telling him over the years.)
Noyce: You wanna uncover the truth? You gotta let her go.
(Here, Noyce also has a faint understanding that Andrew/Edwards false memory of his wife Dolores is what is keeping his mind a prisoner)
Noyce: He’s not in this ward. He was transferred out of here. If he’s not in Ward A, there’s only one place he can be. The lighthouse.
(Noyce is crazy too, finally, he says this because he realizes that he’s not talking with Andrew and that he’s talking to the alternate personality Edward)
Noyce is not part of the role-play. Noyce is being his crazy self. This conversation is being monitored. By now, Edward’s conspiracy theory is so well supported that anything Noyce would have said would have added to that theory. Chuck meets Edward saying that they are looking for the person who beat up the patient. They make their way out. Chuck asks Edward if he found Laeddis. He says no. Chuck says that he found an intake form on Laeddis’ name. Edward avoids looking at the form. His brain is avoiding it.
After his conversation with Noyce, he believes that Chuck is part of the conspiracy too. He ditches Chuck and tries to make it to the lighthouse. But he can’t as the tide is too high. He gets back to see that Chuck is gone. There is his cigarette at the edge of the cliff though. He sees below, he thinks he sees Chuck’s body in the water below. Edward climbs down. While the cliff is shown to be really tall and steep, I don’t think they actually are. It is simply Edward/Andrew’s viewpoint. Just like a rain has become a hurricane, the short rocks have become a cliff in Edward/Andrew’s head. Dr. Cawley wouldn’t risk Andrew/Edward falling to his death.
Dr. Rachel Solando
On going down, he can’t find Chuck. But he does see a cave lit from within. This part of it is all constructed in Andrew/Edward’s mind. He enters the cave to see a woman. She says that she’s the actual Rachel Solando who was a doctor there. This lady is not real. This is all part of his hallucination. She says she started asking about the large shipments of Sodium Amytal and opium-based hallucinogens and the surgeries. The rest of the conspiracy unfolds here in this conversation about the experiments on human minds.
She goes on to state further that his own friends would say “Of course he cracked” because of the past war traumas. Then she asks about his head and funny dreams. About the headaches. She then asks if he has taken any pills, even aspirin. The food and the coffee. And even the cigarettes. This is his paranoia playing out. Everything that he has had on Shutter Island he associates to him being drugged. She says that his hands will slowly start shaking. They then talk about the brain surgery that happens in the lighthouse. She also says that everyone on the island knows about it. The night ends.
Chuck Has Disappeared From Shutter Island
Next morning Dr. Rachel asks Edward to leave as she doesn’t want to be found. Edward heads back. The warden runs into him and takes him back. The warden purposely talks about violence with pride. This just feeds paranoia further. Edward meets Dr. Cawley who mentions about the unidentified person in Ward C who spoke to Noyce. Edward says “I think we’ve gotten all we came here for”. Dr. Cawley asks “we?”. He says “You don’t have a partner, Marshal. You came here alone”. Edward believes completely now that Dr. Cawley has set all the traps to declare Edward crazy. Edward immediately asks “What partner?”.
As Edward tries to get to the ferry, he runs into Dr. Naehring who’s carrying an injection. The injection is merely a placebo. But Dr. Naehring gives Edward the feeling that he’s going to inject and tranquilize Edward. He uses the injection on Dr. Naehring instead and makes a run for it. A vision of Dolores appears asking Edward to escape using a ferry. He takes his tie out and puts it in Dr. Cawley’s car and sets it on fire to blow the car up. His lighting of the tie is an indication of him letting Dolores go. This creates a distraction. Edward heads to the lighthouse and enters it.
Shutter Island Ending Explained – The lighthouse
“Why are you all wet, baby?” Dr. Cawley asks as he’s calmly waiting for Edward at the ending of Shutter Island. This is the exact thing that Andrew asks his wife Dolores in real life when she’s sitting by the lake after she has drowned their children. Dr. Cawley has fuelled the conspiracy theory to a point where it all needs to unfold. But the truth is, there is nothing in the lighthouse. No experiments, no surgeries, no nothing. It’s just an empty lighthouse. Dr. Cawley asks for Dr. Sheehan to come up. Edward thinks Dr. Sheehan has returned by a ferry. Dr. Cawley says that Dr. Solando isn’t real. That the shaky hands are because of withdrawal from not having Chlorpromazine, a drug that Andrew/Edward has been on for two years at Ashecliffe.
He reads out the intake form that Edward avoided. “The patient is highly intelligent, highly delusional decorated Army veteran. Present for the liberation of Dachau. Former U.S. Marshal. Known proclivity for violence. Shows no remorse for his crime because he denies the crime ever took place. Highly developed and fantastical narratives, which preclude facing the truth of his actions”. The Shutter Island ending reveals that this is Andrew’s intake form, Edward’s intake form. Dr. Cawley explains that Dolores Chanal and Rachel Solando are anagrams. Same applies for Edward Daniels and Andrew Laeddis. Dr. Cawley tells him that Edward is, in fact, Andrew, the 67th patient at Ashecliffe, on Shutter Island.
Dr. Cawley tells Andrew/Edward that they will lobotomize him if he doesn’t snap out of it. Noyce was almost killed 2 weeks ago and the board wants to put an end to this. Chuck enters wearing a suit. He reveals that he is Dr. Sheehan. Dr. Cawley wants Edward/Andrew to see how untrue and impossible his conspiracy theory is. He points out that there are no Nazi experiments and it’s just an empty lighthouse. Edward picks up his revolver and shoots Dr. Cawley. There is blood spatter but that is all in Edward/Andrew’s head. The gun is not real. No shots were fired. They tell him about what Dolores has done. Edward/Andrew remembers the event that makes him lose his mind – the death of his children and wife. He faints.
Andrew wakes up. He is back to sanity. He states how everything about Edward and Rachel is all made up. Andrew remembers not taking action about his manic wife which lead to the death of his children. Dr. Cawley says that they once broke through to Andrew 9 months ago but he regressed. So they wait until next morning to see if Andrew is going to regress again.
Shutter Island Ending Dialogue: Live as a monster or to die as a good man
Dr. Sheehan approaches Andrew and talks to him as Chuck. Andrew says “We gotta get off this rock, Chuck. Whatever the hell’s going on here, it’s bad”. Dr. Sheehan looks and gives a disapproving nod to Dr. Cawley. This indicates that Andrew has regressed again. The staff approach to take away Andrew for the lobotomy. Just then, Andrew tells Dr. Sheehan – “You know, this place makes me wonder… Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”
Here’s what Andrew means. He has not regressed. He’s only acting like he has. He has snapped out of his insanity but now his guilt is not letting him live on. If he discloses that he has not regressed, then Andrew will live on as the monster who took the life of his family. Instead, he decides to revert to Edward Daniels, the good man. Edward is taken away for lobotomization. Dr. Sheehan is confused by what he’s just heard and as he calls out to Edward as they take him away for the procedure. The film ends and the audience is left devastated.