So Shutter Island is one of those movies that lived rent-free in my head, even though I’d only watched the film a handful of times. After picking up the 4k blu ray and revisiting it for this breakdown, I found a lot of incredible details and hidden things in it that seeped into my subconscious on a first watch, and this really elevated the movie far beyond the appreciation that I had for it originally. Scorsese has really crafted a masterpiece here, and throughout this video, we’re gonna be breaking down why the film is so haunting. We’ll of course also be talking about the ending and all of the clues that build towards it.
Now I was someone who guessed the twist in the first scene on my first watch. The idea it was all in someone’s mind is a trope that’s been used in a number of films and shows like The Twilight Zone, Fight Club, The Machinist and so on. However, even though I think you can safely guess it in the opening scene, the film actually goes beyond the twist due to its complex characters and narrative.
Shutter Island Telegraphs Its Twist From The Start
Even the title itself is layered, with Shutter Island being an anagram of truth and lies. If we’re really reaching, it can also be re-arranged to say Ted Hunts Liars with Di Caprio’s character going under the name Teddy Daniels.
This is later changed up to become Edward Daniels, and we discover that he’s actually called Andrew Laeddis which is also an anagram of Edward Daniels. Later on, when we meet Laeddis, we can see that he has a giant scar across his face that also goes through his eyebrow. One thing that you might overlook is that Teddy also has a cut through his eyebrow, and this was given to Dicaprio by the makeup department to symbolise that they are one and the same.
Now what I appreciate about the ending is that this isn’t a movie where it pulls the twist out of thin air at the end. Instead, it’s telegraphed to us in multiple scenes early on.
We start off on a boat rather than a dock which is where we see Teddy meeting his partner Chuck. You think that they would’ve met on the shore and the fact that it’s here shows that it’s where the game begins rather than Teddy being an actual person. Chuck is later revealed to be Dr Sheehan, and this is actually given away subtly during a moment in which the pair both interview a patient.
Look at this again, and she glances at Mark Ruffalo’s character upon the mention of Doctor Sheehan. This scene is actually filled with lots of little details, and behind both the patient and Teddy we can see two guards. When we cut to the shots of Chuck, there isn’t anyone standing guard behind him because, as we know, he’s a doctor and not a patient.
The Importance Of Water
Now one of the best moments in this scene is when the patient goes to take a drink from a glass of water. She raises it to her mouth, but if you pause the frame and look closely at her hand, you’ll see that there’s actually nothing there. We then get a quick cut of her putting the glass back on the table, which is when the fantasy continues.
Water is very symbolic in the movie as we learn that Teddy’s wife drowned their children which is what caused his mental psyche to break down. This is why it’s important for the character to start off on a boat, and we’re first introduced to the character being sick.
And this water is very much the first test to start off this quote-unquote simulation. It’s later removed from the patient so as not to trigger him, as we can see how devastating it is for the character here. Now another thing you might notice about Teddy is that he has a bandaid on his head. We call them Elastoplasts in England which… I’ll not force that on you, my American viewers, don’t worry.
Anyway, this symbolically also represents the guilt that he is repressing. This entire situation is very much metaphorically placing a bandaid on the entire guilt he carries over killing his wife. Come the end of the movie it’s removed showing how he’s faced up to the trauma and has taken this away.
Wardrobe And Soundtrack Hints
Another nice touch when we see Teddy throughout the movie is that his clothes don’t actually fit him. This is something I only really noticed on this watch-through as I always just assumed that was the style at the time.
However, clothes in the decade would’ve been tailored, and their being ill-fitting on the characters shows how they were likely just grabbed off a rack so that they could be worn as part of the role play.
In the background, we hear the horn thumping away, and it might surprise you to learn that absolutely no new music was composed for the film. Every single piece used in the movie is from a library of scores released in the ’30s-’50s that Scorsese pulled from in order to add atmosphere.
However, this extends beyond just being noise in the background and, due to the nature of the film very much being all an act by the asylum, it adds to it. I’m sure everyone watching this video has played make-believe at some point in their life, and they’ve pretended to be someone they’re not. I used to think I was James Bond and I’d pretty much hum the theme tune in my head the entire time when I was doing it. I think the musical choices here represent the same thing. This is all Teddy playing along and the score being pulled from other films adds to his perception of it.
Freeze Frame Clues
Chuck asks him if he’s got a girl and we see a flashback to his wife. Scorsese plays with us during the scene, and we get a cut to the water before getting a freeze frame of her.
This of course symbolises how she drowned their children, and the freeze frame lingering on her is almost a mental block put in place by Teddy to stop him from seeing the connection.
Scorsese uses freezeframes in a lot of his movies, and the director often does this as shorthand for us to draw attention to the fact we should be paying attention to it.
Teddy says that his wife died during a fire which is very much of course the opposite of water. This shows he’s concocted the complete opposite story in his mind in order to save himself from the pain. Fire is very important in the movie as well, and this is shown to us at several points. We discover that Dolores set fire to their apartment as a way to end her own life which is when they moved out to the lake. However, its usage goes far beyond that.
Fire, Cigarettes, And What They Mean
We see Teddy smoking throughout the film, but the cigarettes and lights are always given to him by someone else. Teddy doesn’t even have his own pack, which is highlighted to us in this opening scene.
Now the fact they’re always lit by someone else is also done for a specific reason.
Inmates wouldn’t be allowed to run free on the island with a box of matches or a lighter, and these are therefore kept away from Teddy. However, he does later get his hands on some when he goes to visit George Noyce.
It’s possible that this is even a hallucination by him as he sparks one up, but it disappears when he gets up to the bars. He seemingly lights up another one, but this triggers a hallucination of his wife standing in the corner.
Fire also gets a major focus in two key scenes later on. The first is when Teddy seemingly finds Rachel Solando in a cliffside cave. The fire dominates the shot taking up a large part of the frame as the two talk. However, we can see that Teddy’s hands are still shaking and though infused cigarettes are blamed for this, I don’t think that’s true. We know from the ending that he’s not being drugged, and thus this suggests that the fire isn’t actually there because it’s not keeping him warm.
Fire also plays a big part with Doctor Jerimiah, and it too appears in his vision with Laedis later on.
Therefore I believe that the fire is all in his mind and that water represents reality whereas fire represents the illusion that he’s given himself. This is why the lighthouse where the revelation happens is surrounded by water and even Teddy’s mission to escape means that he has to get to the dock which is of course also surrounded by it. Juxtaposing this Laedis sits in front of a fire and Teddy, of course, says his wife died in one when in reality it was all connected to water.
The Storm Is Fake
Now beyond this, I also think that the storm is fake too.
We have a weird point where he wakes up, and we’re told the storm has passed, but we still see a flash of lightning. There’s also the damage that the storm does throughout, which destroys trees and parts of the asylum. We visit the courtyard at one point, which looks worse than the YouTube comment section, with trees scattered everywhere. Once the truth is revealed at the end, though, we can’t see any of this, and there’s no way they could’ve fixed it all this quickly.
When they run out into the storm, we also get the line, “Nice night,” from the guard.
Which I think, if taken literally, shows that this could all be made up.
Therefore I think that the storm is simply used as a narrative device by the doctors to keep him there so that he stays confined to the island. Storms are also symbolic as they of course bring water with them and this could very much be washing the island of Teddy’s delusion.
How Guard And Patient Behaviour Show Something’s Up
Now upon the shore, we get another clear clue that something is off. The guards all stand around menacingly, looking at Teddy with their guns drawn.
This is the start of the experiment, and they’re naturally apprehensive that he could go wild at any second.
They drive past a live laugh love sign cos, hey, Scorsese was ahead of his time.
Now upon reaching the asylum, they’re asked to hand their weapons over. Chuck has difficulty drawing his gun from the holster, and instead, he hands over the entire thing with the gun inside of it.
Chuck is supposed to be a US Marshal that would’ve likely drawn his weapon several times, but the fact he can’t do this again hints at something being off with him.
In the garden, we a patient that looks at Teddy, and she makes a shushing motion. This could be a case of her basically hinting at what’s really going on however it could go beyond that.
FittzWallaby on Reddit theorised that she herself had had a lobotomy, and this can be seen by her missing hair.
She has a large scar across her neck and bloodshot eyes, and something seems off about her. These are all the signs of a violent patient, and yet she’s allowed to wander around the garden with tools that could easily be used as weapons.
The only way they’d allow her to do this is if she’d been lobotomized, and the “shhh” motion could be done to warm Teddy that if he doesn’t keep quiet that he could end up like her.
Cawley’s Explanation & The Law Of 4
At this point, we meet John Cawley, played by Ben Kinglsey. Though the way he’s presented can make him come across like a villain, he’s actually the good guy in all of this. He’s set up this entire elaborate scheme to try and cure Teddy rather than going with the lobotomy which others were suggesting.
They’re here to catch Rachel Solando, who we get the backstory filled in on.
Again tying back to the idea of anagrams, we see at the end that Rachel Solando changes to Dolores Chanal aka. Teddy/Andrew’s wife.
We also hear that her husband died during Normandy, and we know that Teddy helped to liberate a concentration camp during WW2, which also added to fracturing his psyche.
Cawley spells out the entire thing to us here in the office so that we have a fair idea of what’s going on.
He says sanity is not a choice, and this could be hinting towards the choice that Teddy makes at the end. I’ve always been someone who thought that he was well aware of the monster that he was and that he decided to spare himself the pain, but we’ll talk about that more later on in the video.
Rachel was apparently locked in her room, but she managed to escape by seemingly evaporating through the wall. This again hints that she doesn’t actually exist in her cell. Teddy finds a note under a dislodged tile. The law of 4 here refers to the names being anagrams, and patient 67 is later revealed to be Andrew Laeddis, aka Teddy.
We even get a doctor admiring the law of 4 later on and how clever it is, showing he’s in on it. (“The law of four… I love that.”)
The search begins on the bluffs, and here we see some of the guards just sitting around doing nothing. This is because they know that Rachel doesn’t exist and that it’s pointless searching for her.
Teddy also asks what the lighthouse is, and the guard says it’s a sewage treatment facility.
Now Teddy is seen as one of the most violent offenders on the island, and the sewage treatment facility could be the guard basically saying what he thinks of the guy who’s gonna end up getting his final stage of treatment there. We later learn from Noyce that this is where they carry out the lobotomies, so the line shows what some of the staff think about the criminally insane.
From here, they question the orderlies and woah… is that… is that Tommy from Power?
Now, much like how the patient gave away that Chuck was Doctor Sheehan, we see the nurse doing the same thing here when she’s pressed on him.
She glances at Chuck both times, showing who he truly is.
We’re told Sheehan left on vacation that morning and Teddy orders that they try and contact him. However, the storm has apparently destroyed the lines on the mainland, again showing how this is used to keep things centralised to the island. The operator here is clearly playing along and when the trio leave we can see him turning around almost as if to check if it’s okay to drop the act.
The Spinning Record’s Meaning
They go to Cawley’s house, and we see a record playing. This, too, showed up at the start when Teddy was thinking about his wife, and it’s something that later appears alongside the revelation, with the same song being used.
It’s also something that he saw in the concentration camp, and Teddy suspects that Dr Jeremiah is a Nazi. The record is a sliver that ties back to his time during World War 2.
Nazi scientists of course carried out experiments in the concentration camps, and the doctor represents everything he hates. Interestingly, this is Gustav Mahler’s “Piano Quartet in A Minor.” This was actually banned in Germany during the war due to the composer being Jewish. This could be chosen for that specific reason, with it showing the contradictions that exist in the movie.
Jeremiah also says, “You have outstanding defence mechanisms.”
This is true as well, as Teddy is able to concoct this entire fantasy to defend himself from the truth.
How Characters Knew Teddy/Andrew Beforehand
He psycho-analyses Teddy and says that he’s a man of violence, which he would only really be aware of if he knew the character beforehand.
When they go to sleep, Teddy has a dream about his wife, who very much tells him the truth. She does this throughout all the hallucinations, and here, she tells him that Rachel is here. This signifies that she is her, but we’re meant to take it that she’s still on the island. Water starts to seep from her abdomen along with blood, and this was the location of Teddy’s bullet.
Teddy wraps his arms around her, and this moment resembles the painting “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.
She also tells him that Andrew Laeddis is here too, which carries a double meaning that sends him off on his quest to find him.
From here, they start questioning the patients, and the first one brings up a glass of water.
He also speaks with Mrs Kerns, who I believe is actually a friend of Teddy. Like him, she killed her partner, and she seems to want to protect him. When asked if she knows Andrew Laeddis, she gets up and walks out she also writes “Run” in his notepad. The fact she does this makes me believe that they were close and that she was trying to warn him about what was really going on.
Look at her reaction with this in mind, and I think it becomes clear that this entire scenario is breaking her heart.
At this point, Teddy and Chuck head out, and the former admits he requested this case because Andrew Laeddis lit the match that caused the fire which killed his wife. He is slowly starting to piece it together, and they head to the graveyard as it’s the one place no one would notice a body being hidden.
Teddy tells Chuck about what happened when he reached the concentration camp, and we learn that he and his platoon gunned down the guards they were supposed to arrest. Now I’m gonna ruin this scene cos it was ruined for me, but when we go along the guards, right at the end, you can catch one on the floor smirking before he then plays dead.
Bloody hope you’re blacklisted from Hollywood, spoiled the movie, you f**k. F**K!
Paranoia starts to seep in as it’s revealed that Teddy was gonna blow the lid on the experiments that were being carried out on the island. Thus he starts to suspect he was brought in by the shrinks to get him so that he could stop everything from getting out.
The fake Rachel is presented to them, and you can see the reactions by Teddy and Cawley as they see he’s starting to figure things out.
I love the little smirks they do here, almost nodding along like he’s finally figured it out.
Rachel talks about how she drowned her children, and after telling the story, she starts to act like his wife, foreshadowing the anagram reveal.
That night, Teddy has a dream that he sees Rachel and her child amongst the camp victims. The child stands up and says that “you should have saved us all,” and this represents the guilt that Teddy feels over not taking his wife’s mental illness seriously. She told him about it, but he brushed it off, and this eventually led to their deaths.
He also sees my man Casey Jones playing Laeddis, who lights up a match and holds it to his face. He is the delusion and the match being held up in this way continues the idea that he’s the embodiment of this.
Rachel arrives during this and shows him the murder of his children.
Prolonging The Illusion
Eventually, he comes across Noyce, who gives the entire game away by saying “You’re a rat in a maze.”
A very obvious one. but hey, we’re just being thorough. This is the first time that Teddy has been alone on the island though, so it’s important to bear in mind why Noyce doesn’t keep up the illusion here.
Noyce directs him to the lighthouse, and both he and Chuck head out to it.
Chuck seemingly takes a fall over the edge, though, with his body lying on the rocks below. This is later washed away by water, symbolising it was never real. The thing that pulls him back into the illusion is the fire from the cave, which is where he meets the “real Rachel.”
She says, “I was a Doctor Marshal.” This is clearly her commenting on her actual role and why she’s been given such a high-profile role in the illusion.
She spouts off about how the island is secretly trying to build super soldiers by brainwashing people and removing parts of their brains so that they feel nothing.
That morning we see Teddy asleep, and there is another lightning flash even though there is no storm again, hinting at things being off. Picked up by the Warden, my man Buffalo Bill spouts off about violence, and he tells Teddy he’s as violent as they come.
Upon making it back to the mainland, we see the patients being out that Teddy interviewed earlier. They are clearly staring and pointing at him, and even the guards tell them to stop looking at him, so they don’t give the game away.
They clearly say to stop looking at him, and Cawley says that someone got so wound up by Noyce’s stories that they beat him up a couple of weeks ago. This is revealed to be Teddy, and we discover later that he called him Laeddis, which broke him. It’s revealed that this exercise has been carried out before with Teddy. It worked, but he regressed, which is why they are trying it one final time.
How Teddy Finds Out
Cawley also says, “You don’t have a partner.”
Teddy then showers, representing the cold reality he’s just been given.
He once more runs into Dr. Jeremiah who fumbles with a needle in his hand. Though it seems like they’re trying to drug him because he’s exposing what they’re potentially doing, this is actually because he’s terrified Teddy might lash out.
Teddy believes that Chuck has been kidnapped and that they’re using him in the experiments. He sees Rachel and says that he wears the tie because she gave it to him but that it’s ugly. He ends up using it to destroy a car, once more shedding a part of his past. The fire washes over his wife and daughter, but they don’t die, and thus it once more hammers home the idea that this element represents an illusion.
Shutter Island Ending Explained
Before it blows, he sees what is apparently Rachel’s daughter, and she walks over to Dolores. This is actually their child, and this is another clue that it’s the pair who are related. Teddy dives into the water before swimming to the lighthouse, and this is very much a baptism for him that reveals the truth. Cawley starts to bring everything to light with Chuck revealing he’s the doctor. The pair want to avoid the lobotomy as they think that if patients come to the revelations of what they’ve done on their own, they’ll heal themselves without the need for the devastating surgery.
Teddy/Andrew grabs his gun and fires away with it which makes it seem like the Doctor was hit. The fantasy keeps up for a split second, but it fades, and the gun is revealed to be a toy. Andrew is shown the corpses of his children, including his daughter, Rachel, who he dreams about nightly. She tells him that he could’ve saved her. and this is the final thing that makes him realise the truth.
After watching the scene play out, we see Andrew shooting his wife, and he wakes up in a similar scene to the Wizard of Oz. Everyone is around his bedside including the nurse who played Rachel originally.
Andrew created these fantasies because he couldn’t face up to what happened with his wife and their children. He blames himself for it all because he refused to get his wife’s help and it seems like there’s been a breakthrough.
However, one way or another Andrew wants to hide the truth from himself. The initial regression was carried out because he couldn’t face up to it and, realising that he will now have to live with it, I believe that he plays up the fantasy once more so that he’s lobotomised.
When he sits down with Doctor Sheehan, he says to him that he has to get back to the mainland and calls him Chuck.
It’s a heartbreaking moment, and watching the performance that Mark Ruffalo gives here really carries the scene. Just the subtle nod to the Doctor tells us so much, and we see the defeat wash over him as he realises his gentler tactics failed.
Andrew cannot live with himself and the truth that he hid from himself because it’s just too devastating.
He willingly walks forward to his lobotomy, and had he really been in the fantasy, I don’t think that the character would have carried this out.
But it’s what Andrew wishes to do, and we end the film with a shot on the lighthouse summing up his fate. It’s something that has stuck with me since I first saw it and I hope you’ve enjoyed our retread of the movie and all the clues in it.
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