Shutter Island – How Do We Know What is ‘Real’?


Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island deals with the philosophical theme of our perceptions of reality. The film, set in 1954, stars DiCaprio as Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels, a U.S. Marshal appointed to investigate the case of a missing person at Ashecliffe Hospital, an insane asylum situated on Shutter Island in Boston Harbour, with his partner, U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule (played by Mark Ruffalo). For the purpose of this analytical text, it should be noted that it is in fact Teddy Daniels who is the missing person at Ashecliffe Hospital.

The events of the entire film are orchestrated by Dr. John Cawley (played by Ben Kingsley) as an elaborate role play to break Teddy – unbeknownst to the game designed for him – from his psychosis and back into reality. The asylum presented in the film correlates with the “loss of identity that [Teddy] experiences”, indicating that the hopeless nature of the film’s setting at an insane asylum located on an isolated island implies an inevitable abject outcome to Teddy’s perception of reality during his tenure there [Pheasant-Kelly 2012]. Teddy believes there to be a conspiracy afoot at Ashecliffe Hospital regarding the death of his wife and plans on going back to the mainland to “blow the lid off this place”.

As the film progresses, Teddy is convinced that the man who caused his wife’s death, Andrew Laeddis, is a patient/prisoner on the island. It is revealed that Edward Daniels actually is Andrew Laeddis. Burdened by the guilt and emotional pain of the murder, Laeddis invented a new persona for himself, a U.S. Marshal named Edward Daniels. The film sees Andrew Laeddis’ former reality leaks through in the form of dreams and hallucinations (caused by withdrawal from the medication) to Teddy Daniels’ perception of his surroundings. This theme of ‘perception vs. reality’ is the key element of Shutter Island that binds the events and settings of the film to the protagonist’s personal journey through his own psyche [Myers 2012]. Scorsese has included many intentional continuity errors to further blur the lines between what is real and what is part of Teddy’s psychosis.

In the climactic final scenes of the film, Dr. Cawley explains to Teddy that the events he has experienced on the island were all part of a game designed to wake him from his stupor and prevent Teddy’s real murderous self, Andrew Laeddis, from requiring a lobotomy. Once Laeddis has accepted reality and admitted that Teddy Daniels was his own creation and that he is a criminally insane murderer, he says to Dr. Sheehan (Ruffalo): “This place makes me wonder, which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”, indicating that he has either slipped back into his psychosis or he no longer wishes to live as convicted felon Andrew Laeddis but has intentionally adopted the guise of Teddy Daniels to be lobotomised as a man of honour and conviction. Dr. Sheehan looks over to Dr. Cawley, Dr. Naehring, and Deputy Warden McPherson and gives a subtle gesture telling them that “Teddy” is going to require a lobotomy if he is to remain alive at the penitentiary; or perhaps it was actually Andrew finally ridding himself of the guilt of his own reality.


Myers, C. (2012). “Scapegoats and Redemption on Shutter Island,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 16: Iss. 1, Article 2. Available at:

Pheasant-Kelly, F. E. (2012). Institutions, Identity and Insanity: Abject Spaces in Shutter Island. Retrieved June 2, from


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