SPOILER ALERT – the following spills the beans about Shutter Island. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Knowing this will completely change your experience in seeing the film or reading the book. Which is absolutely necessary to understanding the forthcoming deconstruction of the story in order to expose its inherent story architecture.
You can’t understand how a trick is done until you see the “magic” at the end of it.
If you can’t see the film or read the book, or if you need a refresher, here it is.
The story opens as we meet U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels on a boat heading toward the mental hospital on Shutter Island, a former military prison with a dark past. The year is 1952.
Teddy is sick, deliriously so, from being at sea. This is an important plot element that the viewer/reader doesn’t yet understand.
Later, up on deck, he meets Chuck, another U.S. Marshall with whom he’s been paired to investigate the disappearance, or escape, of one of the patients, a woman named Rachel Solando.
Rachel murdered her children. She’s totally, irrevocably, off her rocker. And now, as if she disappeared through the walls, she’s inexplicably gone.
Teddy and Chuck arrive on the island, get the tour from a guard with a barely disguised grin and under the watchful eye of legions of armed guards. They meet the head therapist, Dr. Cawley, who speaks in double-entre psychobabble laden with innuendo. He’s only half cooperative, lending an antagonistic context to the investigation.
That, too, is critical to a context the viewer/reader can’t yet understand, yet is designed to make us all suspicious of him, just as it does Teddy.
Clearly there is more going on here than meets the eye.
The investigation begins, and before long it completely changes, both on the surface and beneath it.
Before the ending will make sense we need to know Teddy’s backstory, which is addrressed through flashbacks and narrative in the story’s first quartile (Part 1). Teddy’s wife, Dolores, was killed in an apartment fire that was proven to be arson. He knows who did it, and ultimately comes to believe that the killer is a patient here on Shutter Island.
It turns out he’s really here, as a hidden agenda, to find this guy (a fellow named Laeddis) and avenge his wife’s death. Teddy, we soon learn, is a man prone to violence, which is also critical to the deception that is already well under way.
In order to fully understand Teddy’s exterior and interior motivations – which the reader or viewer who doesn’t guess correctly will only understand in retrospect – you need to blend two aspects of his backstory into one whopper of a psychosis, both of which are illustrated via flashbacks.
Teddy is a former WWII solider who liberated a Nazi concentration camp with an abundance of horror and vengeful bloodshed, the memories of which arrive with debilitating visceral vividness. It’s enough to drive any man insane.
In addition, Teddy is constantly visited by the ghost of his dead wife, Dolores, who drops cryptic clues all over the place that the reader/viewer can’t possibly comprehend, right before she does things like turn to ash as he holds her in his arms.
You’ll get all of this when you experience the story for a second time, and as clearly as a Times Square billboard. But upon your first viewing or read, you won’t know what to make of it.
Which was entirely Lehane’s intention from the opening scene.
With this as a primer, here’s how it all ends:
Teddy is on Shutter Island to find and kill Laeddis, his wife’s killer, under the guise of being there to find the missing Rachel Solando. Chuck is obviously supportive of this agenda, even though he wasn’t aware of it when they arrived.
And if that doesn’t make sense, that’s because it’s not supposed to.
Because it’s all a staged contrivance orchestrated by Dr. Crawley for the purpose of helping his most violent patient at the hospital – whose name is Laeddis – remember who he really is.
Teddy’s need and quest is this story is to find Laeddis. Because, unbeknownst to him and to us, he is Laeddis.
The scarred and leering specter of Laeddis you’ll meet in the film is part of Teddy’s psychotic role playing, something that has been going on for the two years he’s been a patient on Shutter Island. Crawley’s scheme is to play into the fantasy and lead “Teddy” to the discovery of who he really is and why he is there.
Everything you’ve seen in the film in the way of what seems to be a flashback or a fantasy of some kind – and a few things that seem to be real – are actually glimpses of Teddy’s madness from his point of view. They look real because that are real to Teddy. And because the viewer/reader doesn’t yet know they’re being fooled, we are sucked into that fantasy right with him.
There is no Rachel Solando. There is no Chuck, at least as we see him. It’s all a trick on the person we know as Teddy for the entirety of the story, right up until the end.
Teddy, not the arsonist of his fantasy, was the one who killed his wife after she had drowned their three children. The memory of which, combined with the ghosts of his military experience, had ultimately driven him insane.
Laeddis, the mental patient, can’t live with who he is and what he’d done. So he invented an alter ego – Teddy Daniels, the U.S. Marshall – and proceeds to lose himself completely in that made up world.
Crawley must get the real Laeddis back to reality or the hospital will be shut down. And he’s not above using psycho-alchemy and brainwashing to get it done.
Crawley has staged the entire scenario that comprises the first 95 percent of the story – the disappearance of the fictional Rachel Solando and the subsequent investigation that included the participation of role-playing staff and patients. The objective was for Teddy to actually learn the true identity of Laeddis, and then the truth of who he really is – Laeddis – to prove his methods viable and the hospital worth its continued funding.
The ending, and the truth of it, is as unexpected for Teddy as it is for the viewer/reader.
And it is impossible to see how the story rolls out over the four-part story paradigm – and indeed, how the story and its deception actually works — without understanding the barely hidden but overwhelming context of the ultimate outcome, which permeates each and every scene.
See you on Monday, then.
If you can’t see the film or read the novel before Monday, try to wrap your head around the challenge of writing a story with this level of complexity and nuance.
The plot points, pinch points and mid-point are all there, right where they’re supposed to be. So are the four parts and their unique contextual perspective.
On a final note, the theme of the story is the last line of dialogue uttered by Teddy, followed what we all believe, including Cawley to be his realization that he is, in fact, the wife-killer named Laeddis.
The therapy hasn’t worked as planned. The patient has chosen to reassume his Teddy identity rather than exist in the truth of the Laeddis reality.
Just before he rises to his feet to walk toward what we know will be a full frontal lobotomy, he asks this thematic question to Chuck (who is actually the missing in action Dr. Sheehan, who has been Laeddis’ therapist for the past two years, and has been playing the role of prodding sidekick throughout the whole charade): “Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?”
Teddy chooses the later.
Food for thought, served as a banquet of diversions, dramatic confrontations and a growing sense of suspicion and dread that will leave your writerly head spinning.
Return to the Home Page thread for the deconstruction of Shutter Island, the prelude to which was posted on April 19th, and actually begins on Monday, April 26th.