WEBTAKES: Take Shelter
Reviewed by Andrew Schenker
Produced by Taylor Davidson and Sophia Lin; directed by Jeff Nichols; screenplay by Jeff Nichols; cinematography by Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; original music by David Wingo; starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mxion, Ray McKinnon, LisaGay Hamilton, Robert Longstreet and Kathy Baker. Color, 120 min. A Sony Pictures Classics Release.
In Take Shelter, a working-class Ohio man experiences strong dreams and hallucinations of an impending weather-related apocalypse. As the visions of tornados, lightning-wracked skies and avian flocks pollute the mindscape of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), the film’s lead character takes a turn into clear mental illness, likely an inherited legacy, handed down from his schizophrenic mother. As his friends and relatives worry about his sanity and try to get him to see a psychiatrist, the increasingly megalomaniac Curtis threatens his family’s already tenuous economic position by taking out a risky loan to build a storm shelter in his backyard.
The two assumptions implicit in the above description are that Curtis is indeed crazy and that this insanity is the result strictly of familial inheritance. While such interpretations seem to be the most readily understandable way of coming to terms with the events depicted on-screen (at least until an ambiguous ending calls them into question), director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols everywhere complicates the situation by offering competing readings that challenge the viewer to look beyond easy explanations for both Curtis’ss behavior and the film’s view of the universe.
Nichols accomplishes this productive complicating largely by grounding his film firmly in the economics of working-class life, a fit counterbalance to the project’s otherwise psychological/cosmic orientation. For every evocation of Curtis’s mother’s mental history, the film offers up tantalizing hints of an alternative narrative. His mental illness may be hereditary, but it also may have as much to do with the pressures of keeping up in an eschatologically obsessed America where neoliberalism has made its final apocalyptic triumph. Similarly, the movie makes it a fair question as to whether or not Curtis is actually prophetic or merely schizophrenic.
For the second of these two issues, it’s almost certainly the latter explanation that makes the more sense, notwithstanding a final scene suggesting that Curtis’s visions of a weather-related apocalypse may have actually come to pass. From the film’s opening sequences when Curtis awakes in his bed with repeated nightmares of devastating storms and friends turning into violent enemies, he seems to be afflicted with some form of mental disorder, an interpretation given strong credence when we learn that Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was the same age as her son is now. And yet, Curtis insists that his visions are not mere dreams, that some terrible apocalypse is in fact coming, and because the film renders his hallucinations with such vivid, intensive, if not exactly inventive imagery, we sense that there may be something behind his claims. (The darkening skies, forked lightning, and swarms of birds may be familiar signals of end times, but when director of photography Adam Stone spreads these harbingers of doom across the barren landscape that dominates the ‘scope screen, the shopworn conceptions take on new life.)
Actually, the hereditary explanation is a red herring of sorts – or at least a far less satisfying interpretative option. It’s almost as if Nichols is dangling the easy answer in front of us, daring us to bite. But there are plenty of other possible explanations for Curtis’s mental illness (if it is, in fact, a mental illness). A crew chief for a sand-mining company in rural Ohio, Curtis is presented a man who is able—but perhaps just barely—to provide for his family, a particularly difficult task given the economic and emotional demands dictated by his deaf preteen daughter. As Curtis struggles to establish a fatherly relationship with six-year-old Hannah in his halting sign language, his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), tirelessly phones various doctors and her insurance company in order to get approval for cochlear implants for the child.
The film perhaps makes this economic theme a tad too obvious by having several characters repeat “times are tough” platitudes, but the monetary imperative is present in far more subtle ways, such as a quick glimpse at the gas pump as Curtis fills up his truck, the price creeping swiftly above fifty dollars. In fact, Curtis is presented as that rarest of creatures—a man with a working-class job who is able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle—but the pressures are clearly immense. Still, until his uncertain mental state threatens the balance of his life, he is able to maintain a reasonably comfortable standard of living. As Samantha finally wins approval for her daughter’s hearing aid, the insurance representative informs her that her husband’s benefits are excellent, surely a rare state of affairs for a man working for a small private sector concern.
Nichols doesn’t overplay the pressures-of-the-last-middle-class-prole explanation for Curtis’s breakdown, but it’s there in enough measure to complicate the simplistic elementary psychological one offered by the presence of the protagonist’s mother. Nichols makes sure we get plenty of glimpses of Curtis’s on-the-job pressures, whether he’s being reprimanded for not getting enough work done due to an act of God (a sudden rainstorm), or being told by his boss when he requests that a friend be transferred to another crew that working with the situation at hand is “what being a supervisor” is all about. In addition to work and familial stresses, Nichols introduces America’s fear of contamination (in whatever sense you like) and the news media’s glee at turning this fear into suitably apocalyptic reporting as one more factor in Curtis’s mental deterioration. In an early scene, the sand miner remains glued to the television while a report of a literal (chemical) contamination unfolds on the screen, suggesting the wider implications of unregulated neoliberal business practices, the resultant human costs, and the spread of a national paranoia. As a “contamination survivor” is being interviewed by a reporter about the death of his wife and child and his miraculous endurance, Curtis watches the exploitative news broadcast with fascination, while Samantha, more practically oriented and less concerned with the state of the world than with her own family, remains indifferent.
If there’s one fault in Nichols’ otherwise stunningly controlled and utterly compelling film, it’s an occasional overreliance on reductive psychology, though this reliance is never uncomplicated by other factors. This simplifying orientation finds its strongest expression in the film’s climax, the project’s most conventional piece of filmmaking. As a storm finally does hit the Ohio town (although it’s nowhere near the apocalyptic tempest that Curtis predicted), the family hides out in the LaForche storm cellar. This cellar was itself a major point of familial discord and the most obvious outward manifestation of Curtis’s obsession with apocalypse. But now, when the tempest hits in the middle of the night, interrupting one more of Curtis’s end-of-days nightmares, the structure suddenly seems a sort of godsend. Dreamed-of apocalypse collapses into what might be real-life apocalypse, and the family heeds the advice of the film’s title and hurries to burrow themselves underground.
In a succession of haunting images, Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah huddle together in a bare-bones bunker, the adults donning gas masks and their daughter sporting a less imposing oxygen device. When the storm ends (for it is, in the end, a short-lived tempest), Samantha tells Curtis that he must open the shelter door himself and exit, despite the latter’s insistence that the squall is still raging and that apocalypse is at hand. If he does not do this himself, Samantha says, he will have made no psychological progress and he will back to square one. As David Wingo’s swirling score predictably mounts on the soundtrack, Curtis inches toward the door and eventually opens it.
What makes this scene —utterly conventional when taken in isolation—work is the investment the film has built into its characters in general and Curtis in particular. (This latter commitment is largely the result of Shannon’s subtly effective embodiment of the itchy prole, by turns distracted, obsessed, nervous, and loving). Even if we acknowledge that Nichols is turning in less than his best filmmaking, it’s still easy enough to get caught up in the payoff of the recognizably human drama, particularly in the bracing moment when Curtis leaves his hideout and a POV shot of an achingly gorgeous, crisply blue sky dotted by a single cloud and a flared sun fills the screen while the soundtrack goes utterly silent. But the film ultimately refuses to settle for the easy psychological fix promised by Samantha’s textbook behavioralism. When Curtis emerges he is not cured; a visit to a psychiatrist confirms that he must undergo extensive therapy and possibly institutionalization.
And yet, in the end, the film suggests he might not be crazy at all. The final scene, containing yet one more vision of meteorological doom, is utterly unreadable in that it plays as “real”, but it could just as easily be another of Curtis’s hallucinations. There is nothing in the scene to privilege one interpretation over the other and if I incline to the latter reading, it’s probably simply because it makes for a stronger film (imagined versus actual apocalypse). But if it’s the other way around, if Curtis really is right, then, given the planet’s precarious environmental/political state, would the end of the world really be so far-fetched and inapt a conclusion to Nichol’s eschatologically-minded and utterly-contemporary film?
Andrew Schenker is a staff critic at Slant Magazine and a regular contributor to The Village Voice and Time Out New York.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4