Continuing our series in which writers praise their favourite film endings, Adam Solomons applauds Shutter Island's twisty finale
The first time I saw Shutter Island, I was 12 or 13 and watched it on TV with my dad and my older brother at my dad’s new place across town. Watching movies on-demand served as a much-needed escape from some difficult early-teenage years. It was also an excuse for not talking about things.
As a confused boy worried about the frailty of my happy memories and the shakiness of my own narrative – and that’s not to speak of the guilt! – Martin Scorsese's melodramatic, fear-inducing Shutter Island struck a real chord. And its ending, my absolute favourite, is a killer.
Shutter Island begins with Leonardo DiCaprio's duly appointed federal marshal, Teddy Daniels, arriving on the titular island to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Long before we learn the real story of Teddy Daniels’ wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) or the true intentions of Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Mark Ruffalo’s psychiatrist Lester Sheehan, though, there are red flags abound. From Daniels’ own dishevelled manner to Cawley’s suspicious pomposity, things on Shutter Island aren't quite right. With the help of a storm, Daniels is soon left alone, the facility – and its darkest secrets – all to himself.
Eventually Daniels (real name: Andrew Laeddis) comes to realise the truth: that he himself is actually the missing inmate he has been sent to track down. This leads to the tragic end of what Scorsese has called the film’s “psychological and emotional labyrinth.” Driven insane by the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp and also the drowning of his children by their mother Dolores (Michelle Williams), Laeddis wound up being institutionalised at the notorious former Civil War fortress Ward C. In a twist that would feel right at home in the noir films of Classic Hollywood, Laeddis’s faulty role-play as an investigating officer turns out to be merely Dr Cawley’s attempt to rid his patient of a corrective fantasy.
But Laeddis is ultimately left with the same cruel choice he always faced: recognise the horror of the truth he is living, or go down in a delusional – but ultimately tolerable – normality? As he hopelessly asks Dr. Sheehan in that final scene, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” Scorsese and Shutter Island’s psychiatric consultant James Gilligan have confirmed that Laeddis’ final knowing act, accepting a lobotomy procedure and tacitly acknowledging that Dr Cawley’s great experiment had worked somewhat, can be understood as a kind of substitute suicide. In asking the rhetorical question to his dumbfounded psychiatrist, Laeddis expressly concedes the element of personal choice he faces – and takes oblivion over continued trauma.
The risk in banking so much emotional weight on the final few scenes of a film is that the audience, the vast majority of whom can’t be expected to revisit it, won’t ever see the preceding events for what they are: subtle hints at a more complex, dramatically rewarding ending than they might have first appreciated. It was inevitable that Shutter Island would fare better with those willing to give it a second chance, its hidden layers and secrets only truly made apparent after multiple trips to the mysterious facility. As Roger Ebert wrote presciently in his initial review: “This movie is all of a piece, even the parts that don’t appear to fit. There is a human tendency to note carefully what goes before, and draw logical conclusions. But what if you can’t nail down exactly what went before?”
Tragically, Laeddis’s problem at the end of Shutter Island seems to be that he can nail down what went before in his own life, be it the trauma from combat or the brutal murder of his children by their mother. Although thankfully with much less intensity, this notion of knowing too much about the events of our own lives, and therefore feeling unable to behave as if everything is alright – as we’re too often expected to – lined up pretty close with my own early experiences. Movies like Shutter Island helped me to understand, and sometimes even enjoy, the chaos.