Shutter Island’s Ending: My Explanation

SPOILER ALERT! Please be advised that this article gives away the ending of the movie.  If  you have not yet seen the movie, I would like to redirect you to my review.

Keep in mind that this is just one man’s theory, an interpretation of the events that transpired in the closing minutes of Shutter Island. It should in no way be taken as fact.  If you’ve seen the movie, please leave a comment letting me know your thoughts about the film’s ending.  I’d like to see how your theory stacks up to mine.  I’m writing this article just as much for myself as I am for you, trying to gather all the loose thoughts floating around in my head.

A good film often doesn’t make its impact on a viewer until hours, or even days, after the initial viewing.  Since first seeing Shutter Island three days ago, I have been constantly thinking about it.  Its mysterious ending has been replaying in my head, particularly DiCaprio’s final quote:

“Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?”

My initial reaction to the scene was that DiCaprio’s character, Teddy (Or Andrew, depending on your preference), relapsed.  He was back to having his delusions of being a U.S. marshal, a man who was created in his own imagination.  Dr. Cawley (Kingsley) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) were going to take him back out to the ominous lighthouse where they would presumably undergo various experiments and give him a lobotomy after rendering him a hopeless case.  The end.

After further consideration, specifically under the context of that final quote, I have come to a different conclusion.  DiCaprio’s character was faking his own relapse.  Sound like a stretch?  Well, let me explain.

I am under the assumption that the intervention Teddy underwent in the lighthouse worked.  He is no longer Teddy Daniels, and he fully realizes that he is indeed Andrew Laeddis.  He knows that he killed his wife and blames himself for the drowning of his kids because he neglected his wife and turned a blind eye at her spiral into insanity.  He can’t stand to live under the weight of this burden and no longer wants to live as this man, a man he perceives as being a monster.

He fakes his relapse because he knows they will lobotomize him if they think he has relapsed again.  If you pay attention, you might notice that he gives no resistance to Ruffalo and Kingsley as they lead him to the lighthouse in the final shot.  He freely, even willingly, walks toward the tower even though he knows what goes on there.

I understand that getting a lobotomy isn’t death in the most literal of terms, but it is pretty damn close.  He would have no stream of consciousness, no capacity to make those decisions which separate good men from monsters.  He would no longer be either Teddy or Andrew.

As far as the quote goes, it is apparent to me that Leo’s character prefers not to live as a monster.  If the other people (Ruffalo, Kingsley, etc.) think he relapsed, then they are under the belief that the character believes he is a good man (U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels), and that is what he is dying as.  I guess that’s good enough for him.

The more I think about this film, the more I love it.  That’s the mark of a great film.

Now, please leave comments with your interpretation of the film.  Let me know if you enjoyed this post.  I’m thinking about doing a similar post for The Book of Eli, a movie that I interpreted quite differently than a lot of people.

3 Responses to “Shutter Island’s Ending: My Explanation”
  1. Peyton says:

    I’m not 100% sure, but didn’t Kingsley say that the last time he relapsed he just reset. If so, I believe that all those thoughts and memories (including what goes on in the light tower) became suppressed. And he possibly did, even if that’s not the case. Therefore, I believe he actually did relapse.

  2. Alex says:

    Yea I agree that the relapse was genuine. The problem I see is the practically the same as peyton; Teddy discovered what happens in the lighthouse through one of his delusions. So, the lighthouse being a place for lobotomies is only a product of the delusion…Right? I mean, did they say that they use the lighthouse for lobotomies once Teddy was no longer in a delusional state? Because when Teddy makes it to the lighthouse to be confronted by Kingsley and Ruffalo, he finds out that nothing is going on in there. And this realization came when he was presumably facing reality, and not a delusion. So maybe I am missing something, but I dont think they even really did lobotomies in the light house. The whole idea of that happening in the lighthouse came from a woman in a cave in the side of a cliff, obviously one of his delusions.
    Im not saying they didnt lobotomize people on Shutter Island, but, I dont think they did it in that lighthouse.

    The central force behind my theory is the same as yours Blumey. When Leo says “is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man” I believe he is just acknowledging the fact that he feels he is monster of a person for what he has done, and would prefer to live in his delusional world of heroism.
    Kinglsey warned Leo that if he relapsed again they would consider him a failed effort and simply lobotomize. So Yeah, I believe that Leo was basically asking for the lobotomy which would enable him to “die a good man.”
    I cant think that the relapse was genuine because of the high level of thinking that goes into that especially memorable quote “Is it better to live as a monster…” If his mind was capable of philosophizing such an idea, I have to assume that relapse was deliberate.

  3. Arianna says:

    After considering this and many other discussions like this one and the comments above, I agree with the conclusions drawn by the author of this article. This is, in my opinion, the most logical of an infinite number of interpretations possible from this movie. Thank you!

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