I wrote a post on Take Shelter in 2011 when the film was out in theaters. I recently watched it again, as I am in a psychological/suspense films phase to assist me with my script revisions. After this viewing, I decided my post needed a revision of its own. Four years later, this one definitely still sticks with me. It’s a beautiful, well-acted storm worth being swept away by.
The film was shot on super 35mm film (always a plus in my book), fastidiously captured and organic. Scenes focusing on people are very bare and simple, whereas scenes focusing on nature are intense and bold. The natural world is in a subtle revolt, flocks of birds and gray skies make you look at normal occurrences through an apocalyptic lens. Many of the wide shots showcase Ohio farm country landscapes that – through the genius of good camera work – transform blue skies filled with puffy clouds, emerald trees, and grassy fields into objects of discomfort. David Wingo’s score helps to color the film with strings and bell tones delivering a quietly nervous and ominous mood.
It’s a character driven story centered on one man played almost too perfectly by one of my recent favorites, Michael Shannon. Curtis is a simple guy on the surface. He works for a drilling company, speaks in a low and calm voice, and buries his emotions. He is a family man who adores his wife and their sweet daughter (who happens to be deaf) more than anything. He’s a show-er, not a teller, and any move he makes is out of a deep love for them.
When Curtis is plagued by apocalyptic visions of coming storms, psychotic people, and birds falling dead from the sky he is overcome with fear. His mother is a schizophrenic who unwittingly left him alone in a car as a child and they found her a week later living in a dumpster. It seems likely at first that he may be suffering from the genetic hand-me-down of her mental illness. His is a sudden descent into madness… night terrors, visions, hallucinations, isolation, obsession, anxiety, and paranoia.
Curtis endeavors to build a shelter to protect his family from the great storm he believes is coming. He keeps the reasoning to himself, withholding his emotions and fears from his wife, dreading that she will think less of him and he will lose her. He spends their money, uses equipment from his company without asking, and puts his friend under speculation all because of his obsession. By doing what he thinks he must, he tears his life apart. It is universally acknowledged that the more you cling to your life the quicker it will slip from your fingers, and the harder you run away from your fears the more likely they are to come to pass. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33, Matthew 10:39)
His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, another favorite), shows us what it looks like on the other side. When someone you love appears to be losing it and people start to question them and your relationship. She struggles to understand throughout the story, like most of us would. Samantha's role is showing us the reality of dealing with someone in mental crisis, but learning to do so in love instead of judgement.
The entire movie is like the quiet accumulation of storm clouds until suddenly Curtis snaps, like lightning and thunder, and the flood begins. This build-up is one of the many amazing facets of Shannon's performance. He remains stoic for so long trying desperately to maintain self-control so that, when he finally does snap, it's completely genuine and convincing. As he dissolves into tears, Samantha stands back in shock for a moment. He humiliated their family and himself in front of so many people, but instead of flipping out on him, she reaches out and holds him close, helps him stand, lets him cry.
In the story's turning point, Samantha and their daughter Hannah are in the shelter with him. He refuses to unlock the doors. He asks her to do it because he can’t, he’s too afraid. She tells him that even if she opens the door and he sees everything is okay, he still won’t be better because only he can make the choice to be free of this fear. If he doesn’t open the door himself, nothing will change. Instead of wrongly coddling his fear, she tells him exactly how this can be undone.
I want to talk a little about the ending too, which infuriated many people who saw the film. The problem is (what it always is, especially in American society) people are trying to take the film too literally. Film is art and sometimes art is realism, and sometimes it’s allegorical, parable, or legend. Sometimes it’s both realism and allegorical, which in the case of Take Shelter, I would say is the truth.
Just when we think things are normalizing, we’re given a tasty twist. Curtis and his family head to Myrtle beach for rest after everything they’ve been through. He seems to relax and enjoy making sandcastles with Hannah. Suddenly she stands and looks out to the ocean. Curtis asks her what’s wrong, she signs “storm."
Samantha steps out of the beach house and also witnesses the cyclones and receding tide. Curtis looks at her and she nods, to assure him she sees it too. With Samantha and Hannah confirming, he knows and it’s not all in his head. The storm is identical the one he saw in his visions, right down to the oily, gasoline-like rain drops.
Jeff Nichols said in an interview that the heart of the movie was commitment, staying by someone when they're falling apart. Curtis and Samantha had this wedge between them for most of the film from his anxiety and spiritual/mental battle with himself. His greatest fear was having to leave his family, the way his mother left him, but in the end they are all together. Nichols says that the moment is the look Samantha gives Curtis, acknowledging she sees what he sees. They are on the same page together. That being said, Nichols also said he loves the audience theories and that when it comes to the literal/figurative event in the ending it's open to interpretation.
On the surface, it does seem crazy that dreams and visions could be anything more than fear or paranoia, but perhaps the real insanity is our constant desire to quench the fires of possibility and curiosity prematurely. Take Shelter reveals that there’s a side to our nature that is closed so tightly, so stubbornly we often miss the chance to explore possibilities and seek understanding. Just like Curtis, we hide in our own shelters, but eventually the storms will find us no matter where we run. Overcoming fears isn't merely treating them, it's getting to the root of where they come from in the first place.