The Deception of Shutter Island

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.

15 Responses to The Deception of Shutter Island

  1. Pingback: Welcome to Shutter Island

  2. One additional comment — a great movie called “Angel Heart” does the same thing, with another brilliant narrative deception and killer concept. It stars Mickey Rourke before his face turned into a recycled punching bag, and features Robert DeNiro as Satan (literally). Like Shutter Island, Angel Heart is a masterpiece of narrative craft… and it’ll scare the hell out of you. Did me.

  3. Woohoo! I’m glad I found this site today–I’ve added you to both my RSS reader and signed up for the emails.

    I LOVED Shutter Island, the book. I think I might talk my hubby into watching it on DVD this week before your deconstruction. I’ve kinda been avoiding it–I’ve been afraid of what the movie turned out like. But I’ll do it before then 🙂

    Have a great day and I can’t wait for more!

  4. Martha Miller

    I reluctantly accompanied a friend to “Shutter Island” after reading less than glowing reviews of it. I was absolutely knocked out by the film, but came away with the feeling the author/director didn’t play fair with the viewer. “They cheated!” I told my friend. “They tricked us!”. I had to read the book then (couldn’t put it down) to see how Lehane inserted the clues, but in spite of knowing its secret, I STILL couldn’t figure out exactly how Lehane did it.
    I was intrigued by the movie’s final line by Teddy, guessing it was the theme. Wanting to review it, hoping again for a clue, I waited for it in the book, but it never came. Did I miss it? Or did Scorcese and/or the screenwriter add it?

  5. Thanks so much for deconstructing this story. I too loved the movie and was blown away by the ending and how it all tied together.
    I recently saw The Ghost Writer, and I’d love to have your take on that movie. I found the story very complicated though I loved the noir aspects of the film.

    Thanks, Madeline

  6. Pingback: Coming Monday: The Deconstruction and Analysis of “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

  7. Pingback: Two More Stellar – and Current – Story Structure Case Studies

  8. Pingback: The Deconstruction of “Shutter Island” – A Primer

  9. Larry, I have been throwing your email posts into a StoryFix folder for the last couple of months, intending to read them all at once when I thought I was ready to accept that my organiz writing really isn’t going to get me anywhere.

    Today was the day. Just making my way through the Shutter Island posts (saw the movie) and felt the need to say that they are good. Very, very good. You must surely know that a lot more people read your posts than leave comments . This has to be true, otherwise you might stop writing them. Please don’t. I’m grateful in ways I’m not going to express for your willingness to teach, your bookside manner and your faithful, prodigious output.

    And I will be buying a Larry Brooks book.

    A big thank you from the south of France.

  10. Daniel

    Larry, Nice analysis. When you talk about Deception, there’s different dimension added to this film. It is that the face value story of the movie is deceptive and there is a submerged story that audience would never know.

    There is no confirmation for truth of Cawley’s statements in the exposition given at the end (lighthouse). Most of the things he talked about Teddy was learned during Teddy’s stay in Shutter Island – storm, missing partner, rachel solando etc. And there is nothing more evidencing the fact that Teddy is Laeddis. There are no other evidences as Teddy’s two year old custodial photographs or court’s order.

    The submerged story is about silencing a man who knows too much by taking the tools of the knowledge the conspirators have gather by experimenting on patients. Teddy himself is the subject which he was not aware of.

    Told in B-movie & pulp fashion, Shutter Island is a depiction of brainwashing under the action of drugs and what we see is a cover-up. The real twist of the movie i.e Cave scene is been overlooked. This is true because the Cave Lady was real as we see Teddy is woken up by the Cave lady from a third-person (camera)’s point of view. No body hallucinates when he/she is sleeping.

    Teddy was given briefing from the mainland. He was being drugged right from the Ferry. The Plot goes like this:-

    It was important for doctors to pass 36 to 48 hours to get full effect of drug.
    The brainwashing cannot have been done in captive condition. The Roleplay itself was the brainwashing.
    They let him face a question – Law of 4 & Who is 67?
    This question was a derivative of homework Cawley planned which inadvertently will become the false truth for Teddy at the end.
    Teddy talks about his acknowledgement that the mass killings of nazi soldiers was not moral conduct. But he is also haunted by his wife’s memories and feels obliged to find vengeance. At this moment, we don’t see but its a fact that he was biased between Duty and Personal quest.
    Since he is ‘there’ at Shutter Island, he looks for Laeddis (could be Leydis in film’s reality).

    Dr. Gilligan who has consulted the movie has commented that the therapy demonstrated in the movie is completely opposite to how its really done. The conventional old age cognitive talk & behavior therapy requires a psychodrama wherein the the subject is allowed to play the role of his/her dissociated identity. During the course of the drama, all the delusions of the subject are to be invalidated or let it unfounded so as to make an inert realization of its non-existence.

    In the Movie, going by face value story, Teddy is pushed towards his delusions. He is allowed to know that Rachel Solando exists played by a nurse who turns into a shocking outburst stimulating Teddy to headache. We see that Dr. Sheehan elevates the suspicion of sinister nature of Ashecliffe. And we see that they do not validate the existence of patient 67. (Cawley’s word: Afraid we don’t have [67th patient]).

    Coming to the submerged story, there ofcourse is a seemingly difference of opinion between Naehring & Cawley. Cawley is confident and has a reason to fight.

    The Storm just happened. It was no predicted or coincided with any roleplay. At the end it was labelled as Teddy’s delusion.

    The Storm’s chaos resulted in one patient escape. He hid herself in the Cave. They let Teddy meet Noyce after realisation that they’ve met in the mainland. This meeting will help them what they both know. The transcript immediately went to Dr. Cawley who now learns that Teddy will be heading towards the lighthouse. But they were not prepared or clear things up from there.

    On the other hand, Sheehan restricts Teddy to go to the lighthouse. This could not have been a situation if it was a Roleplay. If they knew each and every detail, their presence at the lighthouse during Teddy’s first attempt was inevitable.

    It also should be noted that it was Teddy who created a missing partner situation and not something coming from Sheehan and to coincide with Teddy’s supposed delusions.

    Next day morning, Teddy is found. They let him go on a free run once again!

    This time they are prepared at the lighthouse. Cawley had made a nice anagram cherry picking the maiden name of Dolores. And we have Rachel Soldando. Teddy Daniels – to – Andrew L(a)e(y)d(d)is was ofcourse a coincidence which Teddy was associated with and which was exploited.

    The Flashback scene is not flashback but a dream. Pay a special attention to movie’s editing.

    After an oral revision test and after many days later,

    Teddy Daniels gets a grip on reality, but still psychologically damaged.

    He says “THIS PLACE MAKES ME WONDER……Which is better…To live as a monster or…”

    If Teddy was Andrew laeddis, what has shutter island to do anything to let Teddy wonder for dying or living ?

    The Movie is Deceptive. First of a Kind.

    • Marty

      This was my take as well. Most folks seem to think that teddy was really andrew, but he is not. thanks for your detailed explanation

  11. @Daniel — good stuff, thanks for taking the time. Food for thought, makes me want to watch it, again. One thing is for sure, both book and movie are masterpieces of deception, as you conclude. Thanks for playing. L.

  12. Kirk

    Shutter Island takes place in 1954, not 1952.

  13. Defer

    Here’s another interpretation of what REALly happened.

    1. There really is a doctor Rachel on Shutter Island and she really did went missing… tried to escape because she knew too much of their secret experiments.

    2. The others (especially Dr. Cawley) is anxious to find and bring her back in fear that she might try to blow the whistle on what they are doing on the island.

    3. They need someone to help them find Rachel, which would be Teddy, who is in fact patient #67.

    4. Rachel and Teddy or Andrew actually met BEFORE, they even escaped togther (of course not shown in the movie), so that part about Teddy having a conversation with Rachel in a cave of the cliff is NOT JUST his imagination or hallucination but an actual piece of his memory.

    5. Andrew or Teddy got captured after their escape, but they still couldn’t find Rachel, so they NEED Andrew to roleplay as Teddy and try to find where she is. (Since they escaped together, he must have some memory of the incident.)

    6. After Teddy tells about his conversation with Dr. Rachel at the cave, they know where she is and is able to locate her. So now “Teddy” has served his function, and there is no need for him anymore, so they sedate him and try to make him go back to be patient #67.

    7. Apparently, Andrew refuse to let go of the identity of Teddy and would rather die for it. THE END.

  14. vishu mastud

    What to say about shutter island..wowww..amazing,awsome.heart hitting experience…Leonardo as always amazing…Dr.cawly and chuck..tremendously awesome.. And mainly the director scorsese hats off…loved the movie…willing to have more movies like this …

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