Shutter Island (2010): One Movie, Two Different Endings?

Ming Fearon &
Jacqueline Wang

This week we watched the Martin Scorsese movie Shutter Island (2010), which is currently playing in cinemas. (SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you plan on actually watching Shutter Island!) The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and Michelle Williams making up the supporting cast (Patricia Clarkson, who played Robert Downey Jr.’s wife in Good Night, and Good Luck, also makes an appearance in the film).

The movie is marketed as a horror/mystery film and takes place in 1954. DiCaprio plays a U.S. marshal named Teddy Daniels who is brought to Shutter Island, the home of a mental institution, in order to investigate the disappearance of an inmate named Rachel. She was sent to Shutter Island because she was responsible for drowning her three children in a lake. Daniels, along with his partner, Chuck, tries to understand how Rachel escaped from her cell and where she could possibly have gone, since they are on an island where the only means of escape is through a ferry controlled by the institution.

Shutter Island has a strange effect on Daniels, especially in his dreams. A World War II veteran and widower, Daniels finds himself often succumbing to intense migraines, nausea, and nightmares about his dead wife. As he gets deeper into his investigation of Rachel’s disappearance, he begins to question the true motives of the Shutter Island psychiatric ward. He begins to think that the patients on Shutter Island are being subjected to horrible experiments (many of which involve lobotomizing them) in the same manner that the Nazis subjected their inmates at Dachau. At the same time, he tries to find a man named Andrew Laeddis, who was responsible for the fire that burnt down his apartment building and as a result killed his wife. Daniels also begins to see visions of a little girl who Rachel drowned, and is continually asked by the little girl why he couldn’t save her.

From reading this synopsis, one can assume that the plot of Shutter Island is a relatively straightforward one. However, after seeing it, we both had slightly different interpretations of what may have happened by the movie’s end. The film has a twist ending; the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley, lures Daniels into a lighthouse and informs him that Daniels has in fact been a patient on Shutter Island for two years, and has imagined his own persona and the whole scenario with Laeddis and his wife. Daniels’ partner, Chuck claims to have been Daniels’ psychiatrist for the past two years. Both inform Daniels that his name is not actually Teddy Daniels, but Andrew Laeddis, and that he was responsible for the murder of his wife, who had drowned their three children in the lake (one of which was the little girl he hallucinated who kept imploring him for help).

As a mechanism to cope with the trauma of what he’d done, Daniels had created this fictional scenario, and in an elaborate attempt to break the delusion, the two psychiatrists let Daniels have the run of the island and play out his fantasies, after counseling him for more than nine months. Prior to these nine months, it was mandated that Daniels would have to learn to grip reality or he would be sentenced to a lobotomy because he is dangerous to society and to himself. In a miraculous breakthrough, Daniels acknowledges what he has done and comes to terms with his past and his identity. In the final scene, however, Daniels appears to have relapsed back into his imaginary persona. He greets his psychiatrist as “Chuck” once again, and assures Chuck that they will find a way off of the island. Chuck gives a signal to the other doctors that Daniels is beyond help, and must go through the operation. As men in white coats approach Daniels to take him away, Daniels says to Chuck, “which would be worse? To live as a monster or die as a good man?” He then willingly walks off with the men, presumably to have his operation. Chuck yells “Teddy” after Daniels, who is non-responsive.

After watching this ending, it seemed pretty clear exactly what had happened in the end: Daniels had been cured of his delusions, but would rather die than live with the guilt of what he had done. However, Jackie felt it was possible that more than one ending had just occurred. She agreed that this was the most reasonable explanation, but speculated that it was also possible that Daniels was never actually crazy. The whole scenario could have actually happened, but the psychiatrists had been trying to keep Daniels on the island by convincing him and everyone else that he was insane. His final words could imply that he would rather die as a good man, rather than to live as a monster, calling Chuck and his cohorts the monsters.

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