Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.

5 replies »

  1. Franz,

    can I just say that I think this is one of the best reviews you’ve written, and that I’m not just saying that because I agree with you completely on the movie? You set it up wonderfully, and went on from there to make an impassioned case for how the complexity of the narrative and its open-endedness were actually strong points of the movie, as it forced us to confront our own understanding of mental illness,

    I was deeply moved by Curtis’ internal struggles, and by how, in his very distinctive way, he was trying to defend his family, not only from the perceived (perhaps imagined) threats of the outside world, but also, in a way, from himself. It was very intense and interesting to see a man who suspects he knows what’s happening to him still trying to protect himself from, as you say, the social stigma and his own backstory. Shannon was fantastic, and I would have dumped Demian Bichir from the Best Actor category at the Oscars in favor of him. Hell, I think he should have won it.

    • When the Oscar nominations were released, I had not yet seen the movie. But after finally getting around to see it, I was surprised that Shannon did not get nominated given that the Academy tend to reward thespians who go through some kind of psychological plight/affliction. What I liked most about his performance is that it was easy to see in his eyes that Curtis had no idea whether the things he saw reflected true reality. His point of reference was his family and when that was threatened, Shannon embodied a dangerous ferocity that I found very interesting.

      Thanks for the compliment! I’ve dabbled with a bit of psychology in college, as a break from the typical hard science, and one of my favorite classes ended up being a course focusing mental illnesses. My professor was very knowledgeable, as expected, but what I found admirable and surprising was her passion when it comes to underlining the fact that people need to be more understanding and sympathetic–the social aspect behind the biological mechanisms. Since I took a lot from the class, it inspired me to look closer at movies that deal with mental illnesses and, in a way, pass on what I’ve learned combined with my own observations and criticisms of the work as a whole.

  2. I like what you’ve written here, although it’s a pretty different interpretation from what I got, but thought-provoking, nonetheless. It seems we both really liked the film itself even if we did come away with slightly different conclusions.

    And I’ve just got to say that casting Michael Shannon & Jessica Chastain was brilliant! I hope they make many more movies together in the future. :)

    • It’s always so awkward when my readers go back to read my older reviews. I don’t know why, but it makes me nervous/uncomfortable!

      Having seen “Mud” for the first time yesterday, I’m very interested in going back to see “Take Shelter” again and maybe take a look at “Shotgun Stories.” Now Jeff Nichols is on my radar.

      Since you’re also a fan of lesser-known works, I was wondering if you’ve seen his first film? And if so, what is your take on it?

      • It had Michael Shannon in it. What do you think? :)

        It’s on netflix instant, so give it a go. It’s pretty good. Not as good as his last 2, but it’s good nonetheless.

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