Shutter Island: Life or Lobotomy?

Posted: January 24, 2012 by Josh Kwasny in Drama, Thriller

Remember the trailer for Shutter Island? I am sure if you think about it, you remember being creeped out by that old woman holding her finger up to her lips…yep, that was enough for me. I was scared already. Check out the trailer below – you will see what I mean.


Horror movies are not my thing. When I saw the trailer for this film, I wrote it off as a horror movie. While Shutter Island is scary and disturbing at times, it is better categorized as a “psychological thriller.” And oh how it lives up to that label! So…I give fair warning to all who have yet to see the film. Shutter Island is dark, disturbing, and includes scenes that are difficult to watch – but, remember…this is a story about the psychologically insane.

Spoilers ahead! Let the reader beware! You will enjoy the film so much more if you watch before reading the rest of this post – I promise! describes Shutter Island like this: “Drama set in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is investigating the disappearance of a murderess who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and is presumed to be hiding nearby.” For those of you who have seen the movie, however, you know that this synopsis is a mere teaser for the real plot line of this film.

As the story unfolds, Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the viewers begin to see that something fishy is happening on Shutter Island – home of Ashecliffe Prison for the criminally insane. Depending on individual perceptive skills or just plain guessing ability, viewers sooner or later learn that Teddy is actually an inmate at Ashecliffe and that everything that has been happening around him has been an elaborate role-play exercise!!

Teddy’s real name is Andrew Laeddis. Although previously a US Marshal, Andrew is now imprisoned for killing his wife after he discovers that she drowned their children while he was away from home. This traumatic event triggered his delusions – which often include violent attacks on others. His actions have made him “the most dangerous patient at Ashecliffe.”

The director of Ashecliffe, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), constructed this role-play with the intention of helping Laeddis to acknowledge his delusions and return to the reality of life. Cawley’s willingness to engage the entire island in this “therapy” is quite remarkable. He truly believes that Laeddis has hope to return to normal life if he would just accept the painful reality of his past. Cawley pleads with Laeddis to accept reality. If he continues to regress into his delusional state, the directors of the facility have decided that he must be lobotomized.

I wish that I could tell you that all ends well for Laeddis. The truth is that the end of this film leaves viewers with little hope of change. Despite the incredible work of Dr. Cawley and his staff, Andrew Laeddis is last seen being led away by the Warden followed by two orderlies holding surgical instruments. Although some debate the ending, all points to…Lobotomy.

So what are we to do with a story like this? Is there anything to learn from such a dark film? I think so. In fact, the Christian worldview is the only one that can bring hope to such a sad and disturbing tale.

The final scene of Shutter Island includes these words from the mouth of Laeddis, “Which would be worse: to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” The film’s answer seems to be that it is better to die a good man. For Laeddis, a lobotomy is more tolerable than living with the pain and guilt of his past. He simply cannot accept reality – there is no future hope in this life. “Death by lobotomy” is the only way forward.

This may seem like an extreme reaction. Surely a lobotomy cannot be the preferred remedy to the pain of living with the past – even a past as horrible as that of Andrew Laeddis!

Let’s be honest for a moment. Sure, we don’t opt for an ice pick to the brain, but don’t we prefer the same result when faced with the difficult realities of life. When we see our sin and its effect on others, it is often too much to bear. In response we choose our form of “death by lobotomy” – alcohol, sex, substance abuse, too much TV, romance novels, food, friendships, blogging…anything to help us forget reality and numb the pain.

Shutter Island offers no hope in dealing with sin and its effects. Without the good news of the gospel – there is no hope to be sure! The only hope for life is through Jesus Christ. When we come to grips with the promise of forgiveness and new life that is offered in the gospel, we have every reason to hope – to chose life instead of lobotomy!!

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of their sins by penning a laundry list of offenses. He then delivers these beautiful words of hope, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11-12). This is not a wishful “hope so,” but rather a sure foundation to rest our hope upon.

Dr. Cawley believed that change was possible for Andrew Laeddis. He desired that Laeddis would come to his senses and live. Dr. Cawley was willing to go to great risk to help this troubled man return to sanity. The Christian gospel promises that we have an even better advocate for our troubled, sin-filled lives. Jesus Christ went to the cross to pay the penalty for sin – past, present, and future. Although we face the daily temptation to “lobotomize” ourselves, let us choose rather to look to Christ and his work on our behalf. We can face the reality of our sin because Christ has taken our penalty and opened up the way to new life.

  1. brad says:

    thanks Josh. What would you think about using this film as an outreach event? Watch the movie, each some popcorn, discuss and preach the gospel?

    • joshkwasny says:

      Hey Brad – As I mentioned in the post, the movie is a bit rough. It would definitely make for good discussion and opportunity for the gospel, but you should use caution when choosing the audience.

  2. […] Shutter Island: Life or Lobotomy […]

  3. venus says:


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