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Shutter Island Explained: Was Andrew Sane?

Martin Scorsese is one master storyteller and most (if not all) of his films try to depict complex human emotions, the complicated way a human mind works, and the simple yet convoluted string of different relationships. But in case you let your mind wander in during some of his more complex movies many intricacies of his filmmaking , the story and its conclusion might be lost on you. Scorcese’s 2010 release Shutter Island is yet another masterpiece that is still a topic of hot debate. This debate focuses on one question.

Was Andrew Laeddis sane or insane at the end of the film when the doctor’s performed the lobotomy on him?

Ashecliffe Hospital and the Shutter Island

Set in 1954, the story begins with the arrival of U.S. Marshals Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. They are there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at the hospital that has gone missing. The only clue she has left behind is a handwritten note that reads: “The law of 4, who is 67?”

This pushed Teddy to solve the puzzle and find Rachel. But the hospital authorities are the least helpful and deny him access to the necessary documentation and access to the staff. He comes to know that Rachel’s doctor Lester Sheehan left the island to go on a vacation soon after she disappeared. He interrogates the patients and they all tell him the same story- that Rachel had an overactive imagination that she used to deny that she willingly drowned her four children after her husband’s death. In her mind, she is not in a hospital, but at home where her kids and her husband are alive, while all the staff member, as well as the patients, are either her neighbors, the mailman, the electrician, and so on. Teddy notices the rehearsed aspect of the story and his suspicions against the Ashecliffe and its staff grow. 

Shutter Island
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Soon, he shares with Chuck his own secret motive for seeking this particular case- he is looking for a man, Andrew Laeddis, who was the arsonist that set the fire that killed Teddy’s wife, Dolores Chanal. He learns that Laeddis was apprehended after he set another fire and was brought to the Ashecliffe Hospital. Teddy believes that the hospital is harboring him and hiding him from the world in Ward C, the place where they keep the most dangerous patients. 

Even as he is dealing with his worsening migraine induced headaches and waking visions from his time as a U.S. Army soldier, Teddy works out that the “67” in Rachel’s note is the number of patients in Ashecliffe. But as the official count is 66, he deduces that Laeddis is the 67th patient Rachel found out about because of which she was removed from the facility while her disappearance was pegged as a runaway patient case. 

The two Rachel Solandos

But suddenly Rachel turns up and the hospital’s lead psychiatrist John Cawley says that she was found near the lighthouse. Teddy becomes more suspicious so with Chuck’s help, he breaks into Ward C, intent on finding Laeddis. However he gets separated from his partner and comes across a patient named George Noyce. Noyce once again stresses that Laeddis is in a hospital and everyone is playing an elaborate game with him.

Shutter Island
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Suspicious of even Chuck now, Teddy tries to reach the lighthouse on his own. But instead, he finds what looks like the body of Chuck on the rocks below. Horrified, he makes his way to him but the body is no longer there. Instead, he finds a cave where the real Rachel Solando is hiding. Solando tells him that the hospital is conducting experiments on its patients. She also admits that she is actually a former psychiatrist who was forcibly committed to Ashecliffe. She warns Teddy that they have been drugging him and will soon try to make it look like that he has lost his sanity as they know that he has been looking for Laeddis. They will cover their tracks by establishing that he is mentally unstable. 

Finding “Chuck” and Laeddis

Everyone at the hospital pretends that Chuck never existed. Teddy becomes afraid that Cawley and his staff have captured Chuck to conduct experiments on him. He makes it to the lighthouse this time but finds Cawley there. Cawley tells him a startling truth. Teddy is their 67th patient, in fact, their “most dangerous patient.” He is not Edward Daniels but actually Andrew Laeddis. Laeddis is a U.S. Marshal who killed his manic depressive wife after she drowned their four children, including his daughter, Rachel, the very girl who has been appearing in his dreams. The names Edward Daniels and Rachel Solando are anagrams of Andrew Laeddis and Dolores Chanal .

The pain and guilt of killing his wife and his inability to save his children were such that he created a make-believe story in his head, where he is Teddy, a U.S. Marshal while Andrew Laeddis is someone else who killed his wife. In order to cure him, Cawley, with a trusted group of doctors and staff members rigged a complicated role-play scenario for Teddy where every twist was a clue to his reality. As for the “other” Rachel he met, it was just a hallucination- a byproduct of his withdrawal symptoms from his medication. 

Overwhelmed by the truth, Teddy/Laeddis falls unconscious and wakes up the next day with his real memories intact. Cawley informs him that they conducted a similar experiment on him a few months ago and thought he recovered. However, he soon regressed to his prior state. He tells Laeddis that if he doesn’t stay sane this time, the hospital will perform a lobotomy on him.

Wait…was Andrew Laeddis actually sane at the end?

The next day, when Lester approaches Laeddis, the latter calls him “Chuck”, establishing that he has indeed regressed to his fantasy world. Cawley and the warden gesture the orderlies to take him away to be lobotomized.

Just before he leaves, he turns and asks Lester a question.

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

Sadly, yes. This time the treatment worked and Andrew retained his memories but they were still too painful for him to live with. His question to Lester proves that he considers himself a monster for what he has done in the past. Thus he pretended to become “Teddy” again to push Cawley to take the decision to lobotomize him as in his head, he is atoning for his sins. 

Shutter Island is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video