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Shutter Island Explained: Symbolism and Ending

Leonardo DiCaprio’s most fantastic movie, Shutter Island, was released last 2010.  This psychological thriller captured the attention of many. The way the story unfolds will give you goosebumps and get your minds blown! Read this shutter island explained, a compilation of the mind-boggling scenes that confused you.

The Story

The story follows a U.S. marshal named Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck, who was assigned to investigate an island filled with the world’s most notorious criminals with only one way in and out. As he continues investigating to solve the mystery of the missing criminal (“patient” as the psychiatrist refers), he encounters more suspicious and odd things about the place. He tries to answer these questions while working on the case. He was obsessed with finding the truth, which he did, but not the one he expected.

Shutter Island

The story was set in 1954; during that time, psychiatrists knew little about mental illnesses and how to treat them. Some psychiatrists at that time concluded that these very violent, mentally ill patients could no longer be considered humans, which led to the experimentations through lobotomy. This procedure involves sensitive pick-like equipment going through your eye sockets to touch your brain. That instrument would then go in and out of your brain. This is done to examine and experiment with the brain and its nerves. Dr. Naehring represents this belief.

On the contrary, a more humane philosophy emerged: treating patients with compassion and caring for them will help them face their fundamental issues; Dr. Collie represents this perspective. This debate is the foundation of the story. The two psychiatrists decided to test the treatment that Dr. Collie believed in for a particular patient, Andrew Laeddis. They performed an extremely elaborate role-play, hoping that by the end of it, Andrew would be able to face reality. 

Andrew had what we call now DID. He could not deal with the death of his children and wife and the fact that she was the killer. In addition to that, he had many traumatizing experiences on the battlefield. To cope, he drinks to avoid his problems and ignores how his mind contradicts his duty. However, this resulted in him not being able to see the signs that his wife, Dolores, is mentally ill. The first time it reached a scary situation was when she lit their house on fire, attempting to kill herself. They survived, but since Andrew refuses to believe this, he decides to move to a lake house instead of getting help for Dolores.

One day, he gets home from work and finds his wife drenched. He asks why but as he looks at the lake, he finds his three dead children floating. Her mental illness has completely taken control of her, leading to her drowning her children.  She believes that by killing their children, she is saving them. Guild and anger take over Andrew, and he shoots his wife. That was the last straw that led to him creating this Teddy Daniel, a new personality. Teddy has some similarities with Andrew but without the trauma. 

After a trial about his wife, he was sent to Ashecliffe. He stayed there for two years as a patient. In this experiment, a specific story is to be followed. The staff was aware of this setup and was ordered to play along. The experiment made the memories that Andrew worked so hard to ignore resurface. The experiment is Dr. Collie’s last attempt to break through Andrew.

This movie requires concentration. Though you tried, there might still be some things you missed. The clues were scattered in almost every scene. You might not have realized them on your first watch. 

Here are some of the foreshadowing and symbolism in shutter island explained.
  1. Fire

After knowing Andrew’s (Leonardo Dicaprio) story, you will realize that Andrew had created fantasies and hallucinations around himself. These are accompanied by fire. The most fitting example of this would be Rachel Solando. In the story, Rachel is a patient who drowned her kids. Her story was a role play about what Dolores did. Teddy met Rachel in a cave, and they were in front of a bonfire. The fire there was much bigger and more consistent than in the other scenes. That shows that Rachel was just a representation of his fantasy because her story is that of Dolores. 

  1. Water

The water symbolizes reality. Every time they talk about reality, water appears. It also appears whenever he gets scared or anxious because he has a water trauma because of what happened. 

In the scene where Teddy and Chuck go out of the building, he talks about his wife; during that time, it is raining. They then went to the woods; after they found a shelter and removed their raincoats, it was noticeable that Teddy was drenched while Chuck was oddly dry despite going through the same path as Teddy. This shows his fear of water; that’s why he is the only one who gets wet. 

Another scene involving water was when they interviewed some patients. Mrs. Kearns asked for a glass of water. Chuck or Dr. Sheehan gave it to her, but she was not holding anything. This was a coping mechanism for Andrew’s fear of water.

  1. Mrs. Kearns

When this particular patient was interviewed, she was relaxed. But when Dr. Sheehan’s name was mentioned, she suddenly became awkward and somewhat nervous. She also kept stealing glances at Chuck, AKA the real Dr. Sheehan.

As seen in the movie, the same patient was nervous. She also asked for water so he could talk to Teddy without Chuck seeing. She gave him a warning and wrote the word “run” on the notebook that Teddy had with him. This is a clue that shows that what Tedy is doing is just part of the experiment.

  1. Rule of four

Teddy’s mission to find Rachel left a clue in her room. The message says, “The rule of four. Who is 67?.” In one of the scenes, a doctor says, “The rule of four. I love that.” That scene shows that the staff knows about the roleplay experiment and that Dolores Chanal is an anagram of Rachel Solando, the patient Teddy was investigating.

  1. Guards

In the scenes where Teddy and Chuck appear, you can see that there are guards behind. However, the guards are only located on Teddy’s side. This is a foreshadowing that he is the 67th patient.

  1. Dreams

Teddy had many dreams of his wife Dolores, but this one particular dream foreshadows how she died and who killed her. Teddy had a dream wherein he embraced his wife with his arms on her stomach. However, she slowly began to bleed, and water suddenly gushed out. This shows that Andrew was the one who killed her. She died because of a wound that made her bleed to death, located in her abdomen. And she got shot after she drowned the children.

  1. Andrew Laeddis

In the persona that Andrew created, from Teddy’s perspective, the guy who killed his wife was Andrew Laeddis, Teddy’s real name. This shows the guilt that he carries for killing his wife. 

  1. Boat scene

When Chuck asks Teddy if he has a girl or a wife, he tells him the story as he lights up a cigarette. That was a giveaway that he was the one who killed his wife.

  1. Chuck, with his gun

Before Teddy and Chuck were allowed to enter the facility, they were asked to give their guns, even though they were supposed to be marshals. This scene should be enough, but as Chuck is about to give his gun, he fumbles. A U.S. marshal wouldn’t fumble with guns, especially their own. The way he fumbles shows that he is clumsy for a marshal. This also foreshadows that Chuck is one of the doctors and not a U.S. marshal.

  1. Light and Dark

The light symbolizes truth. In scenes where teddy is near reality, it gets brighter. In the scene where Teddy confronts Andrew, whenever some part of reality is mentioned, the place lights up. However, no matter how much he lights up the match when Dolores appears, the place is still dark, symbolizing that the Dolores he sees is not real.

  1. Dr. Naehring

In the scene where Teddy meets Dr. Naehring sitting in front of the fireplace, they have a short conversation before Teddy has a migraine. When Dr. Collie asked what their “poison” was, Chuck replied Rye, while Teddy said he’d have some soda. Dr. Naehring then commented, “You don’t indulge in alcohol? I’m surprised. Isn’t it common for men in your profession to imbibe?.” In this scene, it can be seen that it is raining outside, but the fireplace is also near them. This means that not drinking alcohol is fake, and the rain symbolizes that he does not drink to cope. Dr. Naehring also said, “you have outstanding defense mechanisms.” This foreshadows that Dr. Naehring knows about the experiment and that the whole thing is an experiment.

  1. Migraines

Notice how every now and then, he experiences migraines. As he later thought, the doctors were making him take some medicine. Primarily found in the cigarettes they give, just like what Rachel said. When he went out to meet Chuck, he realized that he had lost his cigarettes, and Chuck gave one to him. These foreshadow that the whole thing is an experiment and that Dr. Sheehan is part of it, playing Chuck. This foreshadowing is also shown in how the movie starts, and Teddy is vomiting in the boat. The medicine must have probably worn off, so he woke up. It did not show that Teddy was actually from outside and that he was a U.S. marshal instead of a patient. Whenever he experiences migraines, the doctors give him medicine that is supposedly a treatment for the migraines. 

The end twist

The plot twist at the end was incredible and really unpredictable. If you missed that, here’s the ending of shutter island explained.

In the lighthouse scene, where everything is revealed, the doctors explain that Andrew must have a breakthrough. They also reminded him that he actually once had, but he relapsed. After some time, they saw how Andrew accepted the truth. Some other professionals were there before they released him to decide whether they would perform a lobotomy. Dr. Sheehan sat with Andrew and checked on him. He asked what Andrew’s next move was, but Andrew replied, “We gotta get off this rock, Chuck. Get back to the mainland.” At that moment, Dr. Sheehan realized that he had relapsed since Andrew returned to Teddy’s mission and even called him “Chuck.” He then signaled Dr. Collie, showing that the experiment had failed. Moments after confirming that they would perform a lobotomy on Andrew, he asked Dr. Sheehan. “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” There, he realized that Andrew did not regress. He called him out as Teddy, but he did not turn back, confirming that he had not relapsed since after the experiment. What Andrew meant by his questions was, worse, to live even after knowing what he has done or die by sacrificing himself to pay for his mistakes. He knows that after a lobotomy, the patient will soon die. In the end, he chose to die than live with the guilt.

Everything about this movie is fantastic, including the details, the plot, the plot twists, the symbolism, the representations of mental disorders, the sound effects that give you an unsettling feeling, and of course,  the acting. You will never regret watching this movie for a second time. You won’t be bored; on the contrary, you will have more fun as you realize the foreshadowing and clues you once missed.

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