Review: Take Shelter (2011, Nichols)


Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 25th, 2011

Warning: this review contains moderate spoilers

Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does, and to see the reality of the situation…at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was, on some level, always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis, but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.

Michael Shannon has rapidly made his way into being one of my favorite working actors. He is always playing with a push-and-pull between recoiled quiet and bombastic loud, and he knows how to portray a wide variety of troubled characters. He gets to be front and center in one of the year’s best performances as a man who knows what is happening to him but cannot stop it. Curtis is suffering from apocalyptic-centered dreams and hallucinations. His dreams also entail the people he knows turning against him. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) remains out of the loop for a long time even though she knows something is wrong. When she does find out, it is her job to hold everything together even though it is clear everything is falling apart.

Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances. I have a friend who has been with someone for ten years. Everything was fine; no mental problems to speak of. Out of nowhere, he starts having urges to choke her, to hurt her and to hurt others. Next thing you know, he is admitted to a center and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has a history of mental illness in his family, and that disorder tends to present itself in one’s twenties. They are still together and working through it, but it is something that has completely and irrevocably altered the dynamic between the two and everything they spent years building together.

The reason I tell this story is because hearing my friend tell it affected me much in the way this film did. It really gestates on the idea of a disorder going from nonexistence to rapidly coming to define a person. These things cannot be helped; at least not in their arrival, and what the film does is focus on the reality of the involuntary nature of these serious disorders. It goes without saying nobody chooses to have them; but the obviousness of that fact has prevented this facet of the topic from being explored in film as much as it should have despite the abundance of films about madness.

While the reality of the situation is a focus of the film, so is what is going on in Curtis’ head. Scare-tactic horror tropes are doled out for the dream sequences and while this felt misguided at first, the further the film engrained itself in his mind, the more it registered as the right choice (that it does not take over the film, but lends itself as one interspersed element, helps it succeed as well). One reason it was questionable at the start is there are a couple of moments that play as scares solely for the audience. These early moments have the audience seeing something Curtis does not see, meaning they exist for us. While they take up no time at all and are barely plural in number, it plays false to have things happening in his dreams that we alone experience.

Thankfully the film only does this briefly at the start; the horror tropes end up working really well. It allows a connective immediacy between the audience and Curtis. Films that depict mental instability via the subjective experience of the protagonist tend to be psychological thriller/horror fare. At its heart this is an intimate drama, but meshing genre conventions from both the horror and disaster genres give it the appropriately apocalyptic feel it needs for its metaphoric center to work.

It is always up-in-the-air whether I will get on board with a film unsubtle in the metaphor department. Financial problems loom over as heavily as the stormy clouds. Co-pays, insurance coverage, loans, expensive surgeries and lay-offs galore pop up everywhere. “Something is coming”, Curtis says. His psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us. Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening in its resonance.

Another reason the metaphor works for me is that there are more subtle streaks that Nichols engages in that coexist with the other overt qualities (rain like motor oil anyone?). A key component of Take Shelter is that Curtis recognizes what is happening to him and still surrenders to his convictions. He checks out books on mental illness, visits his mother (Kathy Baker) to ask him questions about her psychiatric roots, and goes to a counselor. For every step he takes to acknowledge and pinpoint what is going on, he takes another step towards surrender. He takes out a loan, steals equipment from work, gives away his dog, builds the tornado shelter and asks for his good friend Dewart (the excellent Shea Whigham, who can also be seen on “Boardwalk Empire” every week) to be taken off his crew after a troubling dream. It is the knowing what is happening but not being able to stop it that not only makes the film alarming as a straight piece of storytelling, but it supports the metaphor by supplying the powerlessness of the average man.

It is worth mentioning the beguiling ending which drives home the primary metaphoric motivation by having the courage to make a metaphor literal in its final moments. Looking at it in this context, it is not really beguiling at all, but it still leaves your head spinning after leaving the theater. It may undo some of what had been built up with Curtis by ending in this way, but it is the sacrifice it makes for a bold move that will stay with you no matter where you stand on it.

Take Shelter works on its two operating levels; a very intimate drama about a man whose family legacies catch up with his mental state while his wife desperately tries to keep everything from falling apart, and a metaphor for our current economic climate. It may manifest itself openly, but it works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one. Michael Shannon brings all of this together with his portrait of a man whose paranoia initiates a series of poor decisions that damage everyone around him. He makes us understand why he makes these decisions, and while we cannot stop him from doing so, we sure as hell wish we could.

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