The ending of ‘Shutter Island’ has been a cause of debate in fan circles as people try to decipher its meaning. A gripping psychological thriller, the film raises some pertinent questions through its ambiguity, forcing us to revisit its story. Even though the plot is self-explanatory in its own right, the dialogue, in the end, turns the entire story on its head, and we are left wondering whether Andrew or Edward is in control of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. Investigations spearheaded by Edward turn out to be a meticulously crafted role-play that can alleviate his mental grief. As Edward relives through the trauma, his guilt resurfaces, and he is forced to face his demons from the past. It is impossible for him to tame his demons, but the doctors at the Ashecliffe Hospital help him in putting them on a leash. But the pertinent question that stems from the ending is whether Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels knew of the entire charade or was he just a part of it. Here’s what we inferred.
Did Teddy Know At the End of Shutter Island?
Before delving into the question, a quick chronological recap of the supposed truth is essential. Andrew Laeddis is the most violent patient at Ashecliffe hospital and is housed at Ward C as the 67th patient. He is a war veteran who helps in liberating the concentration camp at Dachau. The trauma ensuing from the war and the camp’s horrific memories leave Andrew in a catatonic stupor, causing him immense mental discomfort. His married life with Dolores is in ruins as his wife is supposedly affected by chronic depression bordering suicidal thoughts. One day Andrew finds that his wife has drowned his children. She begs him to set her free, and in the act of desperation, Andrew shoots her dead. This incident leaves a huge dent in Andrew’s mind, and coupled with his trauma; he becomes a mental recluse. To get rid of his guilt, Andrew conjures an elaborate story in which he assumes the identity of Edward Daniels, trying to investigate the murder of his wife who was apparently killed in an apartment fire.
The doctors at Ashecliffe try to recreate Andrew’s story so that the first-hand experience will allow him to grasp the happenings and perhaps dissociate him from ‘Edward.’ At the end, when Cawley reveals the truth behind the elaborate role-play, Edward is flabbergasted. He is told that his violence stems from his deeds committed as Andrew, as any remembrance of that fact triggers his dual nature. After the revelation, Teddy wakes up as Andrew and, upon questioning, tells the truth coherently to the doctors’ satisfaction.
In the end, he asks whether it would be better to live as a monster or die as a good man. This statement makes it clear that in an elusive moment of sanity, Andrew actually understands his dilemmas. He knows that he is about to be lobotomized and accepts his fate. Neither Teddy nor Andrew speaks the line, but his inner conscience that comprehends the pretense and finally associates with the chronic guilt. Teddy knows that he had set the apartment on fire, and if this turns out to be a hallucination, he is aware that he kills his wife after she drowns her children. Either way, like Teddy or Andrew, the guilt comes to the surface. It will be safe to assume that Teddy identifies that Andrew is a part of his persona who resides within him. Teddy knows of the truth and also his future in the institution.
What Happens to Andrew?
The doctors are presumably satisfied that Teddy’s persona has subsided, and Andrew is in his true self. Andrew knows that if he relapses back to Teddy, he will be lobotomized. We can empathize with him as he acknowledges his guilt of murdering his wife. The circumstances that lead to this are traumatic, to say the least. Eventually, we see Andrew dissociate with his personality again as he talks of the dangers in Ashecliffe Hospital. Nonetheless, he realizes that he is living a double life and utters the haunting question that surprises Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo), his psychiatrist. This may indicate that deep down, Andrew knows of the charade and perhaps plays along with the ruse to purge himself of his sins.
He identifies with the monster inside him, but the interesting ambiguity at play here is whether Teddy refers to Andrew as the monster or vice versa. In essence, ‘Shutter Island’ plays through a narrative loop of a dual personality, and the moment we believe that truth has been decoded, we are placed right back within it. Who is the good man? Perhaps this is Andrew’s inner conscience judging the two personalities that have taken shape within him. In the source novel, we don’t see such an ambiguity. It is implied that Teddy has taken over and is about to be lobotomized. One thing ‘Shutter Island’ keeps in clear waters is Andrew’s final fate. His statement is a conclusion that entails the lobotomy procedure marking the end of his delusions.
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