Shutter Island is a brilliant film. It’s directed by Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and Michelle Williams in prominent roles. You will notice a lot of similarities in the character that Leo plays in this film and in Inception, as to how he struggles with the memories of his dead wife. I got a lot of requests for this movie’s explanation. I finally got down to writing it. Seat belts on. Here’s a simplified explanation of the Shutter Island story, and there is a section at the bottom focused on the Shutter Island ending. Movie spoilers ahead.
If you are specifically looking for the ending, you can skip right to it here – Shutter Island Ending Explanation.
Shutter Island Explained – The Quick Version
Andrew Laeddis is a US Martial whose wife, Dolores, is mentally unstable. In spite of people’s advice, Andrew chooses to ignore her condition, and one day she drowns and murders their children. He is overtaken by rage and kills Dolores, and the incident makes him lose his mind. He’s admitted in Shutter Island and is treated by Dr. Cawley and Dr. Sheehan for 2 years. Andrew has become delusional and believes himself to be Edward, who is at Shutter Island to expose experiments conducted on the patients. Because of Andrew’s army background, he is extremely dangerous and has hurt many inmates and staff. The board wants to lobotomize him.
Dr. Cawley seeks permission to conduct a massive role-play to snap Andrew out of his fantasy. The film sees Edward being taken through this role-play and his conspiracies are fueled. In the end, at the lighthouse, which is supposed to be the center of all human experiments, the truth is revealed. Edward is Andrews, a patient at Ashecliffe, and now they need to wait a day to see if his sanity remains with him. Next morning Andrew acts like he has regressed because he finds it impossible to live with the knowledge of being responsible for his family’s death. He is taken away to be lobotomized.
Shutter Island Explained – The Detailed Version
I’m going to go through the plot from start to the Shutter Island ending linearly. While this will destroy the fabulous story-telling, it becomes a lot easier to understand.
Shutter Island Movie Spoiler: Andrew’s Crime
Andrew Laeddis was a U.S Marshal and was married to Dolores who he loved very much. They had three kids. Dolores was insane, manic-depressive and suicidal. People tried to tell Andrew that he needed to get help for his wife. But Andrew drank and kept ignoring them. Dolores’ condition worsened and one day she purposely set fire to their apartment and they were forced to move to their lake house. And finally, on a day when Andrew was out for work, Dolores drowned her three children. Andrew was horrified at the sight of his three dead children. He blamed himself for their death, and for not getting Dolores medical help in time. We’re shown in the Shutter Island ending that insanity took Andrew over, and he shot Dolores dead.
Andrew goes completely insane and his mind is unable to face what he’s done. He is admitted in Ward C at the psychiatric facility (Ashecliffe) at Shutter Island. Ward C is where they keep the most dangerous patients. Dr. John Cawley treats Andrew and Dr. Lester Sheehan is Andrew’s primary psychiatrist. They have been treating him for over two years. Because of the nature of Andrew’s violence, the board wants to lobotomize him.
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 is a U.S Marshal who is investigating a case on Shutter Island. His wife Dolores was not insane and died in an apartment fire. His mind has created an imaginary bad guy by the name Andrew Laeddis who is responsible for this fire. According to Edward, this Andrew was taken to Shutter Island and there was no word of him after. Edward has spun a conspiracy theory around the happenings on Shutter Island and aims to expose it.
The Shutter Island ending sees Dr. Cawley explain that over the course of the treatment, there was a moment when Andrew came back to his senses, but 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 as Edward and use that to bring him back. The board agrees. Majority of the movie we witness is this role-play.
Who is George Noyce 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 for calling him Laeddis. Leonardo’s character has developed intense hate for himself. Being associated to Andrew Laeddis enrages him.
Who is George Noyce 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 the Dedham Prison”. Based on this imaginary story, Edward concludes that they are experimenting on people on Shutter Island.
Rachel Solando in Reality
Rachel Solando is the anagram of Dolores Chanal. In reality, there is no Rachel Solando. It’s a person Andrew’s mind has created.
Rachel Solando in the Fantasy
Rachel Solando is a missing patient at Ashecliffe. She is a war widow who has killed all three of her children. Edward believes he has gotten a call to go investigate her disappearance.
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, from the beginning to the Shutter Island ending, that water makes Andrew/Edward very uncomfortable. His mind blocks out water as much as it can. Fire, because his 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 part of the role-play.
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 the Shutter Island movie begins, just after the role-play has started. Edward is throwing up because water makes him feel sick. He tells Chuck about his wife and her death in a fire accident.
Shutter Island Plot Explained
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 who 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 C is for the most dangerous patients and is off limits. The guard takes away their firearms. Their fire arms are merely toys. Chuck has no prior experience with guns, hence he struggles trying to pull it out of the holster.
Shutter Island: Dr. Cawley
Edward and Chuck meet with Dr. Cawley who is also part of the role-play. They talk about Rachel Solando and Dr. Cawley gives information about the missing patient. Edward has a headache and asks for an aspirin. 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 they’re all deliverymen, milkmen, and postal workers. And that to sustain the delusion that her children never died, she’s created an elaborate fictional structure, and has given everyone parts to play in that fiction. Dr. Cawley mentions that Rachel 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.
Edward asks for access to personnel files. Dr. Cawley dodges this on purpose to fuel the conspiracy in Edward’s mind. Edward demands to speak with all the staff. They are assembled after dinner. At the meeting, which is entirely part of the role-play, Edward gets to know that a staff by the name Glen went on an unscheduled bathroom break. This could have been the moment when Rachel Solando escaped. They also mention that before Rachel went to her room she was in a group therapy session. with a Dr. Sheehan. Remember, Edward doesn’t associate Chuck with Dr. Sheehan. Dr. Cawley says that it is not possible to meet Dr. Sheehan as he is out on a holiday.
Here’s the thing about the storm. There isn’t one. It’s just raining. The violent storm is only in Edward’s mind, created because of his discomfort with water. As part of the role-play, the staff places props to amplify the effects of this storm.
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 where 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 a lack of trust which in turn amplifies Edward’s conspiracy theory. Edward demands the files of the staff and is denied them yet again. He gets irritated and states that the investigation is done and they will be leaving by ferry in the morning.
Edward feels that Rachel had help getting out of her cell and he believes the next morning they will get more information on the case. At night, Edward has a dream where Dolores appears and says that both Rachel and Laeddis are still on Shutter Island. Dolores then burns to ashes.
Shutter Island Explained: Glass of Water
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 ride, they’d rather continue the investigation. They begin the interviews (which is all part of the role-play). You can see that Edward can’t stand the fact that folks with mental illness have caused harm to innocent people. He hates them for being criminals regardless of the state of their minds. This is the reason he can’t face his own crime. 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 fuel Edward’s conspiracy theory.
Chuck gets her water. You notice that there is no glass in her hands. While initially you think it is her craziness kicking in, we are shown her keeping down an empty glass. This is Edward/Andrew suppressing water. This gives us a glimpse of how much he can’t stand his reality. Edward then asks her about Andrew Laeddis. The lady says she’s never heard of him with a very suspicious tone, as if she were hiding something. While this is part of the role-play, she understands she is in front of the most dangerous patient and her nervousness is real.
Edward buys the act and thinks they were all coached. That they all said things that they were instructed to say. Chuck asks Edward who Andrew Laeddis was and 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 his apartment. Edward has even 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.
While Chuck and Edward are out, the make-believe storm hits harder and they take shelter. Edward further explains that he’s not there to kill Laeddis, but to blow Ashecliffe’s cover and expose their evil Nazi experiments. Chuck fuels the conspiracy saying that Edward didn’t get lucky to land this case but was chosen to come to the island to be disposed of. He says now he too is trapped with Edward.
The deputy warden finds them and they are taken back to their quarters. They are given staff clothes as their own are wet, and are also given a fresh pack of cigarettes on purpose. They are taken to a meeting to discuss what to do in case the storm becomes too intense. Obviously, this is all creating the illusion of a hurricane in Edward’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 this, Dr. Cawley tells Edward that Rachel is no longer missing, and that she’s been found.
Rachael is back.
They go to meet Rachel whose role is being played by one of the staffs. She plays a crazy lady who’s killed her children quite convincingly. This really shakes Edward, and she refers to him as Jim – her dead husband. Dr. Cawley says that they found her by the light house. Edward gets a migraine and Dr. Cawley gives him pills to take care of the pain.
As told to us in the Shutter Island ending, because of the role-play, Andrew/Edward has been off his regular medication on purpose. This is causing withdrawal symptoms. The first step is the headaches. The next would be shaky hands. Edward is taken down to the basement and put on a bed. 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. Then he sees the fictional man with a scar that he calls Laeddis. Rachel appears asking for help with the dead children and asks him to find Laeddis.
Ward C – George Noyce in Shutter Island Explained
Edward wakes up. The generator has apparently failed, and all the crazies are running loose. Edward and Chuck decide to sneak into Ward C. One of the patients talks to Edward. Initially, Edward thinks it is Laeddis, but it turns out to be Noyce. Noyce is a Ward C level crazy person. Over the past two years, Andrew has filled his head with conspiracy theories about what goes on inside the lighthouse. Noyce merely repeats that. While Noyce initially refers to Leonardo’s character as Laeddis, he later states that Laeddis is not in the ward and that he was transferred out of there.
Noyce is not part of the role-play, we merely witness two mentally unstable people having a conversation. Chuck meets Edward, and they make their way out. Chuck says that he found an intake form on Laeddis’ name, but Edward avoids looking at the form because part of his brain knows that it is his own intake form.
After his conversation with Noyce, Edward 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 and realizes that Chuck is gone. His cigarette is left at the edge of the cliff though. Edward looks down and thinks he sees Chuck’s body in the water below and begins climbing down. While the cliff is shown to be really tall and steep, it is simply Edward’s perception. Just like the rain has become a hurricane, the short rocks have become a cliff in Edward’s head. Dr. Cawley wouldn’t risk his patient falling to his death.
Shutter Island Cave Explanation: Dr. Rachel Solando
On descending, he sees a cave lit from within. This part of it is all constructed in Edward’s mind. He enters the cave to see a woman. She says that she’s the actual Rachel Solando who claims she was a doctor. This lady is Edward’s 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 about experiments on human minds unfolds in this conversation.
Then she asks about Edward’s headaches and funny dreams, and checks if he has taken any pills, even aspirin. She suggests his food, coffee, and even the cigarettes have been drugged. This is Edward’s paranoia playing out. She then talks about brain surgeries that happens in the lighthouse, and how 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. The warden runs into Edward and takes him back. The warden purposely talks about violence with pride. This feeds the paranoia further. Edward meets Dr. Cawley and 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 now believes completely that Dr. Cawley has set traps to declare Edward crazy.
As Edward tries to get to the ferry, he runs into Dr. Naehring who’s carrying an injection. The injection is merely a placebo to give Edward the feeling that he’s going to be tranquilized. Edward uses the injection on Dr. Naehring 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. Setting the tie on fire is an indication of him letting do of Dolores. The explosion creates a distraction and Edward heads to the lighthouse.
Shutter Island Ending Explained – The lighthouse
The ending of shutter island reveals that Edward Daniels is indeed Andrew Laeddis, the 67th patient at Achecliffe who has been under treatment there for two years. Dr. Cawley has fueled the conspiracy theory to a point where Edward expected to see humans being experimented upon in the lighthouse. But the truth is, there is nothing in the lighthouse. No experiments, no surgeries, no nothing. “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 question that Andrew had asked his wife Dolores, in real life, when she was sitting by the lake after drowning their children. Dr. Cawley says that Dr. Solando isn’t real, and 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. 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”. Dr. Cawley explains that Dolores Chanal and Rachel Solando are anagrams, and similarly Edward Daniels and Andrew Laeddis.
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 and reveals that he is Dr. Sheehan. Dr. Cawley wants Edward/Andrew to see how untrue and impossible the conspiracy theory is. 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. They tell him about what Dolores had done. Edward/Andrew recollects the death of his children and wife. He faints.
Andrew wakes up and is back to sanity. He states how everything about Edward and Rachel was all made up. Andrew remembers not taking any action about his wife’s mental condition and that 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 stay sane or regress again.
Shutter Island Ending Quote: Live as a monster or to die as a good man
The Shutter Island ending sees Dr. Sheehan approach Andrew and talk to him as Chuck. A final test to see if the role-play worked. 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 he tries calling out to Edward as they take him away for the procedure. The film ends and the audience is left devastated.