Something really bad is coming, an impending apocalypse and only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see it on the horizon. His Mom was institutionalized after a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia when he was ten, however, so are his dreams a prophecy of the future or his own mental facilities starting to fail?
Stuck in the chaos is his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) who want to support him and tries to understand what he’s going through, but can feel his distance and fear, and can’t avoid his increasingly bizarre, erratic and random behavior. When Curtis spends the money they need for their daughter’s cochlear implant on an expanded storm shelter in their rural Ohio backyard, it’s the last straw and Samantha leaves. But is he right? Is there a storm heading their way?
Take Shelter is a powerful film about mental illness that uses a very atypical narrative approach. There’s a level of ambiguity throughout the film that leaves you wondering whether the apocalyptic visions are foreshadowing the future or whether we’re witnessing a blue collar construction worker in rural America break down, day by day.
It’s all too easy for a filmmaker to oversimplify the anguish and confusion of a mental illness, just as alcoholics “just stop drinking” in movies, or bigots “just see the light” and reform. Were the film to have just a slightly shorter running time and ended just a few minutes earlier than it does, Take Shelter would be a powerful and provocatively ambiguous movie about mental illness, but the final scenes that suggest one ending, then switch to another, highly ambiguous one hurt the story a bit too much for me to recommend this without reservation, though I still felt it was quite compelling.
Films can get mired down in narrative backstory where passages end up boring and uninteresting, typically because the expository portions appear prior to us becoming engaged with the characters. Nichols nimbly avoids this time and again in Take Shelter with hints that daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) hasn’t always been deaf but with no explanation of what happened for her to lose her hearing. Her deafness is a metaphorical reflection of Curtis’ challenge with seeing and experiencing what really is happening around him rather than the troubled vision that plague him both awake and asleep.
Since film is already a dreamlike medium, there’s a self-reflective element to Take Shelter that also serves as a metaphor for the entire experience of viewing a movie. When Curtis dreams of his dog attacking him then buys a doghouse so that Red can sleep outside after having been an indoor dog his entire life, is Curtis acting with admirable forethought and caution or is he losing the ability to differentiate between reality and his dream state? And what does that say for us, the cinematic audience, as we walk out and discuss the film with our friends?
The production team does a splendid job of evoking the rhythms and values of small-town America too, where corn fields come up to the edges of backyards that themselves flow into one huge parklike space undivided by fences or property borders. Driveways are dirt, cars park on the lawn, and people do yard work and retrieve newspapers in bathrobes. Family dinners happen with a palpable weight of obligation and when everyone sits around and glowers at each other, it’s just another Sunday.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) turns from the coming storm, from Take Shelter
One of the most dramatic scenes in Take Shelter takes place at a church brunch where Curtis’ best friend and solid supporter Dewart (Shea Whigham) is upset to see him, and they get into a scuffle. Curtis cracks and it’s the only scene in the movie where we see him angry at the situation he’s been thrust into. Is he going crazy, damn it, or is something really, really bad heading their way and he’s the only person who can see it and is the only person who is taking steps to protect his family from the storm?
The visual effects help the film without becoming the centerpiece too, which is a nice relief after such banal films as The Happening that also offer visions of nature protesting. Notably, there are scenes where Curtis hears the peal of thunder, yet even he can see that the sky is blue and cloudless. And yet, just a few minutes later, it’s pouring and they have to abandon the construction site. What’s really going on?
There’s much to like in this quiet, powerful film that addresses the challenge subject of mental illness in a fresh and interesting manner. I would recommend it strongly if not for the ending, which throws into question the entire narrative journey and any conclusions that the viewer has made regarding Curtis, his visions, and whether or not there is indeed a storm coming.