Shutter Island Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Shutter Island (2009): Meaning Of The Film & Explanation Of The Ending, Detailed Transcript Of The Plot, Director’s Tips. Shutter Island: The Main Idea Of ​​the Film & Clues From Scorsese That The Audience Does Not Notice.

Country: USA

Genre: Thriller, Drama, Detective

Year of production: 2009

Director: Martin Scorsese

Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and others

The meaning of the film “Shutter Island” (original title “Shutter Island” – “Trap Island”), a psychological noir thriller from the classic cinematographer Martin Scorsese, is far from clear to everyone after viewing. The creators of the picture with the help of a huge number of details at the same time tried to confuse the audience and give them a lot of clues. Let’s analyze the meaning conceived by the director and screenwriters.

Analysis of the plot

The main character is US Marshal Edward (Teddy) Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Employees of the Service of Federal Marshals are engaged in ensuring the activities of the courts, monitoring the execution of sentences, and searching for and arresting criminals. In 1954, Teddy, along with his partner Chuck Oul, goes to a psychiatric hospital to track down the child murderer Rachel Solando, who has escaped from there.

The clinic is located on Shutter Island (this is the island of the Damned), in the sea near Boston. There are 66 patients in total. All suffer from severe disorders, some of them are especially dangerous criminals.

Shutter IslandFrame from the film.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear to the hero that, despite the specifics of the institution, something is wrong in the hospital: the marshals are forced to hand over their weapons, they are not given access to documents, the staff behaves suspiciously.

Teddy himself is also out of order: he has constant headaches, he is tormented by terrible dreams mixed with memories of his dead wife and the Dachau concentration camp, in the liberation of which he participated and where he shot unarmed German soldiers. The weather on the cursed island is also restless: after the stay of the marshals, a storm begins and intensifies.

The head physician of the clinic, Dr. Cowley, tells Teddy about the runaway patient. Rachel Solando. According to him, she was convinced that she was not in the hospital, but at her home, thinking that all those present were postmen, milkmen and the like. In her room, Teddy finds a piece of paper that says, “The Rule of Four. Who is sixty-seventh? Dr. Cowley cannot explain the meaning of the note, Teddy himself is also confused. Interrogations of patients and staff yield nothing.

During the investigation, the protagonist tells his partner that he, Teddy Daniels, ended up on the island of the damned for a reason – he took the case of the runaway patient on his own initiative. His secret goal is to find Andrew Leddis in the hospital. Leddis is a maniac obsessed with fire. He committed several arsons with human casualties. Through his fault, Teddy’s wife, Dolores Chanel, died. The fact that Laddis was on the island of the damned was told to him by George Noyes, a former prisoner.

Teddy and his partner ventured out of the clinic during a storm. When they return, their wet clothes are taken away and another is given out, after which the heroes become like local residents. Suddenly it turns out that Rachel Solando has been found. Teddy fails to learn anything from her – she seems to be delirious, as always.

Teddy is getting worse. At night he has nightmares. The next day, the heroes, taking advantage of the fact that the electricity generator was turned off due to a storm, penetrate into building C, where the most dangerous patients are kept. Here, in one of the cells, Teddy meets with George Noise, who was supposed to be on the mainland.

He talks about the inhuman methods of Dr. Cowley and makes it clear that they are just playing with the marshal – even his partner is not real. And it is not surprising, because the acquaintance with the latter took place on the ship, immediately before arriving on the island of the Damned.

Teddy loses confidence in his partner Chuck and forbids him to go with him to the lighthouse, in which, according to Noise, patients are lobotomized. Marshal tries to get there through the rocks, but to no avail. Returning to the place of parting with Chuck, Teddy finds his body in the water on the shore and goes down the rocks. However, there is no one there. Teddy sees hundreds of rats that fill the shore, and then a fire in a cave.

meeting with a partner on the shipMeeting with a partner on the ship. Frame from the film.

Climbing into the cave, the marshal encounters the real Rachel Solando there, who was one of the doctors in this clinic and tried to reveal to people the sinister secret of the damned island: experiments are being carried out here similar to the experiments of the Nazis – people are turned into real zombies. In addition, she says that Teddy was most likely stuffed with antipsychotics through food, drinks and even cigarettes.

Back at the clinic, Teddy tries to find Chuck, but Dr. Cowley claims that the marshal came here without a partner. The hero returns to the lighthouse – to get there, he dives into the sea and swims. After neutralizing the guard, Teddy enters the building and does not see any laboratories there. Upstairs sits Dr. Cowley himself. He gives an explanation for everything that happened to Teddy on the island of the damned.

It turns out that the investigation of the crime is just a fiction. There was no escape. And Teddy Daniels is no longer a marshal. For two years he himself has been a patient of the hospital. His real name is Andrew Leddis. The identity of Teddy Daniels, like the whole conspiracy theory with inhuman experiments on the cursed island, he came up with. No neuroleptics are given to the former marshal. Moreover, the trembling in his hands is just a breakdown from not receiving chlorpromazine (actually, an antipsychotic). Much of what Teddy has seen

on the island, including the alleged real Rachel Solando – his hallucinations. He also did not kill German soldiers, although he was in the Dachau concentration camp.

Teddy’s partner Chuck Oul, who appeared on the top floor of the lighthouse during the doctor’s explanation, is actually one of Lester Sheen’s doctors. The mock investigation, including the planted note (pointing to the sixty-seventh patient of the asylum, Andrew-Teddy himself) and the rule of four (that Andrew Daniels and Rachel Solando are fictitious persons), are designed to show the absurdity of the situation and awaken true memories.

Teddy and partner ChuckFrame from the film.

This is the last attempt to cure the former marshal. Otherwise, a sad end awaits him – a lobotomy. After all, in fact, because of his visions and attempts to uncover the conspiracy, he is the most dangerous patient on the island. One of the victims of his actions and severely beaten by him is just George Noyes.

At first, the doctors’ arguments do not convince the former marshal, but in the end he remembers the traumatic event that caused the madness and all further misadventures. It turns out that one day in the spring of 1952, returning home, Andrew saw a terrible picture: his wife Dolores Chanel, who had previously shown signs of mental illness, killed their three children by drowning them in the lake. In a state of great grief, he shot her.

At the end of the film, the protagonist, in the presence of doctors, as well as a nurse who pretended to have found Rachel Solando, confirms that he is Andrew Daniels and everything said about his madness is true. Dr. Cowley, in response to this, says that the return of the hero to the personality of Teddy Daniels through treatment is not the first time. This already happened, but after a while the disease again covered him, and he again became obsessed with a fictitious conspiracy on the island.

This also happens in the final: the former marshal again behaves like Teddy. Dr. Cowley, in this regard, is forced to succumb to the persuasion of colleagues and agree to use a lobotomy. Leaving for the procedure, the hero throws Chuck: “I was thinking: what is better – to live as a monster or die as a man? ..”.


Transcript: Andrew Laddis or Teddy Daniels?

So, the main question that remained with many viewers after watching “Shutter Island”: which of the personalities of the protagonist is still real? In other words, is it worth trusting Dr. Cowley, or did he cleverly deceive the marshal?

The cheating version is dealt with in many reviews of the film. There are many episodes and details that would confirm it, that is, weighty arguments (what is the name “Trap Island” itself and the slogan “Some places will never let you go” – maybe the hero was really driven into a trap?).

This is quite easy to do, because we certainly know that some of what is shown is hallucinations. Otherwise, everything does not make sense at all, events cannot be given a clear explanation, and we have before us just a philosophical art house, which is very unlikely.

In order to solve this riddle, you need to pay attention first of all to the artistic techniques used – to the clues that the director gives us. Thanks to them, there will be much more arguments in favor of the fact that the final twist is not just another trick, but the truth.

And here it will not be superfluous to listen to the words of Scorsese himself. He said that in some way he made not one film, but two, and this was reflected in almost every episode. That is, part of what is shown is one reality, and part is another. Next, we will make sure that we are talking about the fictional reality of Teddy Daniels and the real Andrew Laddis.

Rule number 4

It’s worth touching on rule number four right away, because it confused many when viewing. The note the protagonist found read “THE LAW OF 4”. A more accurate translation: “law of four” or “rule of four”.

Dr. Cowley explains the meaning of this phrase. We are talking about two pairs of names: Teddy Daniels and Andrew Leddis, Rachel Solando and Dolores Chanel. The first names in each pair are anagrams for the second ones, that is, they turn one into the other by rearranging the letters – of course, in English. The probability of such a coincidence is very small.

hospital on islandsFrame from the film.

And this, in fact, is not a coincidence: the brain of the protagonist just worked like that – he automatically created non-existent personalities and gave them names in this simple way. In other words, he came up with doubles of real people: For Andrew – Teddy, for his wife Dolores – Rachel.

If you think about it, anagrams do not work as iron arguments for the hero’s insanity. Maximum – as an addition. And it is unlikely that the hero would have come to unravel the rule of four on his own. Another phrase in the note is key: “WHO IS 67?” – “Who is the sixty-seventh?”. She was to send Andrew-Denny on a search for an “extra” patient that would lead to him. This was Dr. Cowley’s intention.

Rachel Solando

In the finale, it turns out that the personality of Rachel Solando is fictional and, in fact, is a reflection of the personality of the protagonist’s wife, Dolores Chanel. The latter was out of her mind – perhaps this is Andrew’s own fault. He was known to get drunk regularly and preferred not to listen to what people were saying about Dolores. She herself told him that there is an insect inside her head that controls her actions.

We see Dolores in the memories and visions of Andrew-Teddy. In one of the first visions, she appears in a location that is a mixture of a city apartment and a country house near the lake, where the spouses lived.

patient with teddyFrame from the film.

Disappearing, she says: “Release me, dear.” It is this phrase, as it turns out in the end, that meant Dolores’ request to kill herself after drowning the children. In the conversation itself and more than once after it, the girl points to the presence in the hospital of Andrew (as if it were not her husband, but another person) and Rachel. But we must not forget that this happens in the imagination of the protagonist – there is no doubt about it.

Another important phrase associated with Dolores: “Why are you all wet, honey?”. This question is thrown by Dr. Cowley when Teddy goes up to the top floor of the lighthouse. And for good reason: the doctor knows exactly what he means. So the protagonist asked when he saw his wife wet. She was in this form because she took each of her three children one by one into the lake and drowned there.

This phrase is heard in another vision of Teddy: a girl enters the building from the street, where it is pouring rain, to again say that the arsonist Laddis is still on the island of the Damned. Asking a person who has been out in the pouring rain why they got wet is pretty weird. It’s just a catchphrase that was relevant during the traumatic event. And for the viewer, it serves as one of the many clues.

The imaginary Rachel is simply reenacting Dolores’ terrible actions – she also appears in Teddy’s visions. The hero cannot escape the fact of the murder of three children by his wife, so he disguises this event in this way.

Dr. Cowley “materializes” Rachel for him – he asks the nurse to play this role. During the interrogation after the “return of the patient” to the ward, we see that there is not a single scratch on her bare feet: if the girl really wandered around the whole island of the damned, they would not look like this.

library in the hospitalFrame from the film.

Rachel, when talking with Teddy, is guided by the reaction of the doctor – we were shown an exchange of views. But the second part of the conversation, after mentioning the lake, is already the vision of the protagonist. In it, Rachel acts like Dolores. Water and references to water are always a trigger for Teddy’s hallucinations, but more on that later.

Brain gives Andrew-Teddy an explanation for Rachel’s strange return, unharmed. It consists in the fact that there is another, “real” Rachel – a psychiatrist who tried to tell the world about the terrible experiments on the island of the damned, but in the end was forced to hide without the possibility of escaping to the mainland.

The scene in the cave is entirely in Teddy’s imagination. This is indicated by hordes of rats (obviously hallucinations) and, in principle, an implausible meeting of heroes. Fire (bonfire in the cave) is another clue that Teddy and I see something that is not there. Fire is his salvation from water. Let’s figure this out too.

Medical staff and security

The behavior of the prison workers is a whole complex of clues that the main character is Andrew Laddis. Understanding their reactions to what is happening is the key to the puzzle.

The guards in the presence of Teddy are always on edge – we are emphasized from the very beginning. Further, you can see that when the main character is not around, the guards behave in a relaxed way: people sit on the grass, throw stones, look into the distance. And the search is just an imitation when Teddy is following them.

Nurses and orderlies behave strangely. When Teddy tries to find out the circumstances of the case, they don’t take him seriously. And when it comes to the runaway patient’s doctor, Lester Sheen, everyone is confused.

dining room sceneFrame from the film.

No wonder – after all, this is Chuck Oul – the partner of the protagonist, who is present during the interrogation. The latter, by the way, once almost betrays himself in front of Teddy with his head, when he clumsily tries to get a pistol out of his holster – it is unlikely that an experienced marshal would have such difficulties.

The head of the prison acts as if he has known Teddy for a long time, and directly talks about it. It really gives the impression that he knows the main character very well and feels in control of him.


Many patients of the hospital, appearing briefly in the frame, wave, smile, and in other ways also make it clear that they are familiar with Teddy. In the scenes with interrogations of the mentally ill, there are also clues.

For example, when Peter Breen answers Teddy’s questions, he does not look at him, but at Chuck, because he, being a doctor, has more authority in the eyes of the patient. But Lester-Chuck is gesturing for Peter to answer Teddy, not him.

Other hint details

So, water and fire are, perhaps, the main elements that are somehow woven into the narrative and indicate the hidden meaning of what is happening.

Water is directly related to the tragic event that traumatized the protagonist. Already at the very beginning of the film, we are shown that it is very difficult for Teddy to be in the middle of the water: he experiences seasickness, although there is complete calm around.

water and traumaFrame from the film.

However, the episode on the ship is most likely in the imagination of the protagonist. Why would Dr. Cowley put him on a ship if Teddy is already sure that he is still a marshal and is busy investigating a crime on the island of the damned? The ship appears out of the mist – as if from nowhere. Teddy only here meets Chuck, which is completely implausible. The main character is transported in a cabin for dangerous criminals (we are shown shackles and a grate separating this part of the ship from the rest) – apparently, it was so, but two years ago, when he first arrived on the island.

When one of the characters mentions water, Teddy begins to hallucinate. Cowley, in one of the first conversations, speaks several times about the lake in which Rachel drowned the children, and the hero sees a second, non-existent photograph of the patient. During the interrogation, Rachel, after her “return” and words about the same lake, begins to behave like Dolores.

Peter Breen becomes much more aggressive at the mention of a glass of water, suddenly switching to the crime of Rachel Solando, who doesn’t exist. Yes, and Teddy himself loses his temper, furiously scribbling a pencil in his notebook (another image of pushing unwanted events out of consciousness).

An important episode, the highlight of which eluded many viewers: the scene of interrogation of one of the patients – a woman who killed her husband. When asked about Rachel Solando, she actually repeats Cowley’s words verbatim, as if by heart. Then Teddy asks about Lester Sheen, and the patient is confused, because the one who plays the role of Chuck is also here.

place for operationsFrame from the film.

The woman asks for a glass of water – and Teddy naturally begins to hallucinate. The word “run” in the notebook was not written in reality. This is a signal for Teddy’s identity – the water threatens to destroy him and return the identity of Andrew.

The most interesting thing about the behavior of the patient during this interrogation is that when she sees a glass of water brought, she does not drink, but simply raises her hand to her mouth, in which there is nothing. And this is not a blooper – there is another similar scene in the film.

The protagonist’s wife, Dolores, is seen holding a bottle of alcohol in his vision, but in the next shot, her hand is empty.

Teddy’s subconscious forces these fluids out of his consciousness. His children were drowned in the water, and alcohol did not allow him to see the true state of things. The shot of the woman drinking non-existent water is also a ploy for the viewers. Most simply ignored it.

Water is displaced into the hero’s subconscious. The storm raging on the island is a symbol of the storm in the soul of Andrew-Teddy. Based on this, it can be assumed that the scenes in the cemetery in the pouring rain and in block “C”, where water seeps into, did not exist in reality. Unless, the episode when Teddy swims to the lighthouse may be in reality, because soon after this decisive act, he will turn back into Andrew.

Here is a metaphor for purification and ascension: Teddy, who finds himself in the basement in the middle of the film, dives into the element he is avoiding and rises to the very top. However, such symbolism could also take place in the imagination of the hero. There is too much to say that at least half of what is happening at the lighthouse is also unrealistic: a guard with an unloaded gun, a shot at a doctor, the presence of the hero’s wife and daughter, etc. Most likely, this is a combination of a conversation that actually happened, and mind games Andrew-Teddy.

The fire saves Teddy from the water. The hero came up with the idea that his wife died in a fire. By the way, at first he emphasizes, as if relieving himself of responsibility: the girl did not burn out, but suffocated. The marshal’s visions of the fake Andrew and the fake Rachel, and the dead Dolores giving false clues to her husband begin with a fiery flash. In the same visions, fire is an element raging in full force. We also note that only Teddy and the pyromaniac Andrew invented by him use matches in the film. The rest of the characters have lighters.

death of wife in fireFrame from the film.

All episodes where the action takes place in the Dachau concentration camp are in the imagination of Andrew-Teddy. The historical truth is that the execution of unarmed German guards took place, but everything happened in May – there was no snow and frost. The guilt of the protagonist in the death of his children and the murder of his wife was transformed into a feeling of guilt for the execution of the SS. So winter is also not a plot blunder, but a well-thought-out artistic element that gives one more hint to the audience.

The German officer from the same camp was also invented by Teddy. He looks a lot like the tough warden on the island. The record in the officer’s office (and in the mansion on the island) features a work by the composer Gustav Mahler. Mahler is Jewish by nationality, which means that the SS men in the concentration camp were hardly listening to him.

George Noyce

Teddy’s meeting with George Noise takes place after his wanderings around C Block. The fact that everything that happens there is unreal, in addition to dripping water, is also hinted at by a flickering light – it should not be there, because the generator has failed. Teddy goes to the call of George, who says “Leddis”. The marshal lights matches, a fetish of an imaginary pyromaniac.

The dialogue between Teddy and George seems strange and chaotic, but everything falls into place if you use this key: when the match is lit, Teddy’s personality talks to Andrew Leddis’s personality, when it goes out, Teddy’s personality talks to itself.

Leddis in the image of Noise speaks about the lies of his interlocutor and that he is locked up – obviously, in the subconscious of the hero (like other images of people in cages). That is, the hero, with the help of self-deception, created the personality of Teddy, hiding the identity of Andrew.

The idea also sounds that the matter is not in the search for truth (illusory – a hint of a fictitious investigation that the hero is obsessed with), but in the hero himself. When the match goes out, the marshal hears from Noyz his own suspicions and guesses: that he is being played with and that his partner is not real.

In the light of the newly lit match, Teddy says he’s not going to kill Leddis, but he yells, “Liar!” Because that’s what he does – kills his original identity – the identity of Andrew.

Ben KingsleyDr. John Cowley, still from the film.

So, George Noyes is just an image through which thoughts are broadcast in the head of the protagonist. There is no real Noise in the film. The real George Noise, most likely, being a patient of the hospital, really suffered from the actions of Teddy, so the latter in this way, with the help of imagination, habitually transforms his sense of guilt.

Dr. Cowley’s words, spoken at the lighthouse, that this conversation was being recorded, were also not in reality. It is difficult to imagine how at that time and in those conditions (assuming that what happened in Block C really took place) it was possible to do this.

Ending explanation

The grandiose staging worked: the hero DiCaprio remembered everything.

The character’s line at the very end of the film (“… live as a monster… die as a man…”) implies that Andrew faked the return of Teddy’s personality. He does not want to live, knowing what happened, and that he is to blame for the death of his wife and children (for the same reason, in fact, the marshal’s brain created Teddy’s personality). The hero voluntarily goes to the lobotomy.

Movie idea

One would think that there is no special, deep meaning in what is happening for the viewer, that the film is just an exciting attraction and a puzzle. But in fact, there is a pretty powerful idea here. And there are a few more details about this.

The filmmakers, including the author of the original novel, made the hero a war veteran for a reason. Fake flashbacks with evidence of Nazi atrocities are not accidental here either. The hero could transform his sense of guilt into anything, but he projected it onto the events in the concentration camp, which, albeit in other scenery, took place in real history.

Ted's investigationFrame from the film.

About hydrogen bombs and other weapons that threaten to destroy all of humanity, two characters speak at once: a female patient at the beginning of the film and prisoner Billings. The latter generally does it with rage, trying to shout to Teddy. Yes, and the marshal himself thinks that monstrous experiments are taking place on the island, similar to the experiments of the Nazis – he is echoed by the imaginary doctor Solando.

Now let’s remember that most viewers didn’t notice the key frame at the beginning of the film – the hand of the interrogated patient with an imaginary glass. From the first time, many other clues were not noticed, although some were given almost head-on. Teddy and I just didn’t want to pay attention to them.

The protagonist did not notice the madness of his wife, preferring to drown his fears with alcohol. And this led to tragedy.

The real fascism in history, threatening to destroy all of humanity and in the end almost did it, also began both clearly and, as it were, imperceptibly to the rest of the world. More precisely, many simply preferred not to notice it. The entire German people, to say nothing of others, pretended to the very end that nothing terrible was happening. The guilt complex appeared only after the defeat of Hitler. But this guilt is quickly forgotten, transforming into something else.

The film seems to come from somewhere deep, but it warns: if you do not accept the hard, but obvious facts, the end can be terrible. And this is true both for a single individual and for the whole of humanity.

Movies similar to Shutter Island

Inception (2010)

The film “Inception” is a spy adventure in the realistic world of dreams of the hero who lost his wife, performed by Leonardo DiCaprio.

A Beautiful Mind, 2001

A Beautiful Mind is a melodramatic thriller based on the true life of the great mathematician John Nash, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club” is an adaptation of the cult book by Chuck Palannik starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

Memento (2000)

The hero in Memento, suffering from a rare form of amnesia, remembering only the last fifteen minutes of his life, is trying to find his wife’s killer.

The Machinist (2003)

Hallucinations and reality are intertwined in the life of a man who has not slept for a whole year and literally turns into a living skeleton.

Where Dreams May Come (1998)

A loving husband and an exemplary family man, dies in a car accident and ends up in paradise. His wife commits suicide and goes to hell. But the hero can not accept this …

A fantasy drama about true love that makes the hero go from heaven to hell for his beloved.

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