SPOILERS FOR SHUTTER ISLAND FOLLOW
When I first saw Shutter Island, I believed the ending was ambiguous. Heck, maybe it still is. Here are all the arguments I can think of off the top of my head that Teddy Daniels, the protagonist of Shutter Island, is sane or insane.
REASONS THAT TEDDY IS SANE
1. When Teddy is on the boat with his partner Chuck, at the beginning of the film, he finds that he has misplaced his cigarettes. Chuck hands him one. Could these cigarettes contain psychotropic drugs designed to slowly turn Teddy insane? Chuck doesn’t seem to really inhale.
2. Would a mental institution really let its most dangerous patient walk around the island with free reign, accompanied only by a psychiatrist? Especially a patient with combat training? That seems pretty dangerous.
2. During Teddy’s first dream, we see his wife surrounded by fire and ash. We then see that Leondardo’s hands are wet. This could symbolize the fact that reality is intruding, and that his wife really died at the lake–or it could just be because water was dripping from the roof onto his hands in real life.
3. Teddy tells his “partner,” Chuck, the story about Laeddis and his wife. Could Chuck and the doctors on the island then use this knowledge of Leonardo’s past against him, convincing him he is insane? All the dialogue in the final scene between Teddy and his wife was spoken to him by the doctors at some point in the film. The power of suggestion? As the Rachel he meets in the cave says, “they’re going to point to some event in your past as the reason you lost your sanity.”
4. The gun Teddy hands in at the start of the movie is in a black holster. The fake gun at the end of the movie is in a brown holster. Is it the same gun, or is it Chuck’s gun (which was in a brown holster)?
5. Although Dr. Cawley says that he believes in treating patients with respect and compassion, he keeps them chained in prison-like cells in Building C, with no clothes. This seems out of keeping with his philosophy, and suggests something sinister is going on.
6. George Noyce seems convinced he is going to be experimented on because of Teddy (1:14:19). If Teddy is in fact a patient who violently assaulted Noyce, why would they want to “carve into his brain”?
7. The island is staffed by demented guards, one of whom wants to rip out Teddy’s eyes with his teeth (1:34:34). Something sinister might be going on there.
8. Why did the woman write RUN to Teddy if she knew that he was part of a role-playing experiment designed to cure him? Wouldn’t she want him to be cured? She waited to write it until Teddy’s partner was away, suggesting she didn’t want him to see it.
9. The lighthouse he enters at the end of the film may not be the same lighthouse he sees near the beginning of the movie (16:31). One has a long fence near it, the other does not.
10. After Teddy beats up an escaped patient, the leave him alone in Building C. Would they really leave the most dangerous patient on the island completely alone in a building full of escaped patients, who are also highly dangerous, especially after what just happened?
11. Teddy has a big hallucination about Rachel Solondo about halfway through the movie, where he converses with her for some time. If his hallucinations are really so bad at this point in the movie, how does he manage to make it through the rest of the film without losing it completely? If his hallucinations got worse because of his withdrawl from his medication, surely he would never have been able to make it to the lighthouse. If Rachel was real, on the other hand, it explains how Teddy was able to function for the rest of the film.
12. At the end Teddy says “is it better to live a monster or die a good man?” This could be a jab at the doctors on the island, who may have ‘won’ in the sense that they are living on, but have lost in the sense that at least Teddy, who is going to his death, lived a good and upright life.
REASONS THAT TEDDY IS INSANE
1. If he was sane, then why could he not find Andrew Laeddis? Why could he not find evidence of any experiments?
2. Could RAchel Solondo really have survived the hurricane in caves? Eating what?
3. Why did Teddy not look at the file Chuck brought him when he was going to explore the lighthouse? He may have thought Chuck was a traitor, but shouldn’t he still have looked at the file, just to make sure? Of course, if he was insane, his subconscious knew what the file would say, and his reason for not reading it was that he didn’t want to face the truth.
4. Andrew Laeddis and Edward Daniels are anagrams of each other. So are Rachel Salondo and Delores Chanal. Bit too much of a coincidence.
5. Isn’t the whole idea that there are Nazi experiments being conducted on a secret island just a bit, well, crazy? And in keeping with the delusions an ex-federal marshal who was a WWII veteran might have, too.
6. Teddy’s reason for being on the island seems to change from scene to scene. At first he is merely investigating a missing person. Then he is also looking for Andrew Laeddis. Then he is investigating Nazi experiments. Maybe Teddy’s delusional mind is just making it up as he goes along.
7. Laeddis’ appearance–a pyromaniac with mismatched eyes and a huge scar in the middle of his face–seems a bit absurd, more like a madman’s fantasy than a real person.
8. Why did Teddy seem so sure that the fake gun he tried to shoot Cawley with at the end of the film was his, if it was merely a toy? Maybe because he was delusional.
9. Teddy’s wife tells him Rachel Solondo is still on the island, as is Andrew Laeddis. He later finds Rachel Solondo in a cave. How would his own dream know she was alive unless she was actually a hallucination? Also, he never found Andrew Laeddis, even though he explored all the cell blocks on the island.
10. At one point, when threatening to bring the doctor’s recalcitrance to his superiors, Teddy seems not to know which agency he is going to report to hand his report to (26:14). This would make sense if he was an ex-marshal committed to a mental institution and out of the field for a long time.
11. Wouldn’t the doctors want Teddy to find Rachel Solondo if she was actually insane? How can it all be a trap to lure Teddy to Shutter Island if Rachel Solondo is a real escaped patient?
12. At the end he says “is it better to live a monster or die a good man?” This could mean that he knows the truth (that he is insane and killed his wife) but simply prefers to be lobotomized rather than live with the memory of what happened to his family.
So which is Shutter Island? The story of a man subjected to a cruel experiment meant to silence him by convincing him he is insane? Or the story of a mental patient coming to grips with a past trauma? You decide. In my opinion, the best and most compelling evidence Teddy is INsane is the very nature of his fears–that the island is staffed by Nazis, that they are doing experiments, that Teddy is a heroic marshal and everyone is on on a big conspiracy against him–are just the sort of delusions many types of mental patients have.