This week, I’m sticking with movies from 2011 to discuss a film that has never really left my mind since I first saw it. I re-watched it the other day and am going to attempt to put into words how effective it is, and why.
Take Shelter (2011)
Plot: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), an Ohio construction worker, lives with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and deaf daughter, Hannah. He starts having apocalyptic nightmares where the rain is oily; clouds, massive and strange; and people, violent. His daily life is impacted and he decides to renovate his storm shelter, but he cannot keep out of the back of his mind that his mother developed severe paranoid schizophrenia at right about the same age.
When I first saw Take Shelter, I was intrigued by the premise and expected it to be good. I did not expect to be so emotionally crippled that I was left incapacitated for the night. In fact, I told my girlfriend that there would be a day when I wanted to watch Take Shelter again, because it’s so damn good, and that she had to remind me that doing so would be stupid.
But I did it anyways, because: a) no one tells me what to do, especially not me, and b) I’m an idiot.
Luckily, this viewing did not get to me quite as much. But Take Shelter still stands out as my favorite movie of that year, surpassing the likes of Drive, Beginners, 50/50, and Winnie the Pooh. While I don’t want to make this article a pure review, I do want to preface any comments on the film itself by saying that the acting and directing are amazing. Michael Shannon won me over with this performance, to the point that I will watch anything he’s in. He’s often quiet and reserved, but the toll that every second of Curtis’s life takes on him registers without fail. Jessica Chastain has a straightforward role, but as always she plays it to perfection. Concerned, angry, scared, helpful: any emotion–and any transition between emotions–is done so well that I forget she’s even acting.
The directing is great–embellished by Adam Stone’s excellent cinematography, which ranges from dreadful (in the sense of invoking dread, not being of poor quality) to awe-inspiring. The overall story is slow, but the pacing makes us feel the horror and confusion that Curtis feels, even when his actions are disagreeable. Most importantly, the direction ensures that all aspects of the story add up to the point of the movie, which is what effects (potential) mental illness can have.
The delusions and hallucinations of paranoid schizophrenia are hard to understand from an outside perspective, but director Jeff Nichols so clearly communicates the mindset that even the viewer doesn’t know if what is happening is real or not. We follow Curtis in his story, and we are left to wonder: what of this is actually happening? Does Curtis suffer from mental illness, or is he a prophet?
I’m going to talk about how the movie pulls this off so well, and the effect that has, so spoilers will follow. Personally, I think that the movie can be enjoyed with or without this knowledge, but I would encourage everyone who enjoys good film to check this movie out before proceeding so that they can make up their own mind about what they see.
Returning to the pacing, I think that one way this movie affords doing so little story-wise but still accomplishes so much dramatically is the way that the dream sequences are incorporated. Often, we’ll start at a fairly standard scene, be it Curtis at work or with his daughter, and then find ourselves–with no cue spare, occasionally, rainfall–that we are in a nightmare. So, just as these dreams feel real to Curtis, so too do they to us, because the line between “reality” and dream is blurred.
Even more powerful is the increasing sense of dread that fills Curtis’s life: the dog playing with young Hannah is suddenly ominous after a nightmare where he attacks Curtis. The director’s intercutting of Curtis’s nervousness and the dog playing with Hannah make us feel this way too. All of the day-by-day aspects of an Ohio construction worker take on darker tones to the point where reality becomes almost as frightening as the dreams.
But the movie posits one specific question: is Curtis developing severe paranoid schizophrenia, or is he having visions? Well, I think that the directing is meant to keep this ambiguous, since we are not privy to any knowledge outside of Curtis’s. But, the directing also (in my opinion subtly) implies an answer: Curtis is suffering from mental illness.
Consider the screenshot above: in this scene, Curtis is having a nightmare wherein even his wife has turned rabid and violent. She eyes a knife, and he shakes his head, frightened of what she’ll do. Besides being one of the most bone-chilling scenes I’ve ever seen, it also carries great weight because it follows the buildup of Curtis and Samantha’s increasing separation due to Curtis’s inability to communicate with her. She becomes almost an opponent in real life, someone he feels increasingly alienated from, and so in his dream she is not by his side but against him.
Following a massive outburst at a community dinner, where Curtis screams about an oncoming storm for which no one is prepared as everyone stares at him with fear, Curtis has another dream. Hundreds, maybe thousands of birds swarm in the sky and fly down at him, as he attempts to shield Hannah from harm. Then, they fall from the sky, dead, one by one and then dozens at a time. The community has manifested as the birds in Curtis’s mind, attempting to harm him but ultimately dying in the face of the storm.
And then, of course, there’s the final scene, which is, in a way, like the ending to Inception. If you for some reason are still waiting to see Inception and don’t want it spoiled, then skip the next paragraph.
Basically, Inception ends by leaving the viewer to wonder whether the main character is dreaming or not. People freaked out over this, with everyone asking Christopher Nolan in interviews and the internet generally teeming with fans trying to piece together whether the main guy is back in reality or still dreaming. But the answer was that it doesn’t matter at all: he got over the death of his wife, and that was the entire emotional concern of the movie.
Take Shelter‘s IMDB message boards have a lot of people asking similar questions of its ending. This movie ends with Hannah, Samantha, and Curtis all on a planned vacation. But suddenly, they see the storm on the horizon and the motor oil rain begins to fall. Curtis says Samantha’s name, wondering if she can see what he sees, and she responds, “Okay.” She realizes that the storm has come. But was it a dream, or reality? The real answer is that it doesn’t matter. Either way, Samantha has accepted the storm, which could be literal but more likely is meant to represent the tempestuous nature of Curtis’s mental illness. In my opinion, because the movie seems so clearly about Curtis’s illness and not him being a prophet, this is a dream. Samantha was represented earlier as a threat, but now she is entirely on his side, so now she is represented as accepting. Still, regardless, the effect is the same. And damn it all if it isn’t well done.
There are a lot of other nice touches in this movie, like the Biblical allusions. The shelter is, in a lot of ways, like Noah’s Ark. Upon receiving warning of a terrible storm, a man builds a shelter in preparation. Furthermore, the scene where Curtis blows up at the community dinner has him shouting that “there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen” and other apocalyptic warnings. Maybe it’s just me, but this felt reminiscent of doomsday preachers. Maybe the director meant this to reflect that Curtis is actually right and a prophet, but I thought it was an interesting way to comment on supposed prophets throughout history and how their perception of reality manifests and appears to others.
Maybe I haven’t clearly communicated why this movie makes such an impact. I think that, in describing how effectively it communicates Curtis’s perspective and the horrific nature of an illness like paranoid schizophrenia, Take Shelter inherently induces a heavy feeling on the viewer. Paranoid schizophrenia–although I can’t speak from experience–must be an emotionally and physically tolling experience (as always, Trope-ic Thunder‘s Drew Parton is the man for that branch of knowledge). So is Take Shelter, maybe not in the same way, but enough to make me commend the director and everyone involved for creating a movie that is not just a story, but an experience. Few directors can claim to have made something so powerful. Hopefully, some day, Take Shelter gets the recognition it deserves not merely as a reflection of one particular mindset, but as a holistically amazing piece of filmmaking.