When I was a kid, I was terrified of storms. Hell, I was scared of clouds because they brought with them the potential of storms. Tornadoes were unimaginably terrifying. Now I have two main irrational fears, which are really the same fear and are extensions of my fear of storms, fear of something too big to understand or control. First, as I mentioned when I watched Melancholia, is that the world is going to end while I’m alive. This is ridiculous. In fact, the more I think about it the more pathetically self-absorbed it seems to be certain that a world that has gone on for billions of years would suddenly call it quits in the blink of an eye that I inhabit it. The other irrational fear is that I will lose my mind and be just aware enough of it to try to do something but not enough to actually stop it.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter shares my first fear, and experiences my second. Curtis has nightmares concerning strange phenomena in the sky. Large, menacing storm clouds form devilish shapes. Brown raindrops, like motor oil fall from the sky. Birds behave erratically. His dog attacks him. These nightmares are so terrifying that he wakes up screaming, or wets the bed, or bites the inside of his mouth. They are so vivid that he gives away the family dog.
Curtis works construction to supports his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his little girl, Hannah, who is deaf. Things are going well, he seems to be trusted as a foremen at his job, his family is popular in their rural community, they’re planning a trip to the ocean and it’s possible, with insurance through Curtis’s work, that Hannah may be able to have corrective surgery for her hearing. Then the dreams begin. But also, Curtis hears things that others don’t, cracks of lighting, booming sounds. Also, he sees things that elude others, those strange bird patterns. He discovers that the storm shelter behind his house could use updating. He sees his doctor about his trouble sleeping who recommends a psychiatrist in the city. Curtis doesn’t go ostensibly because he can’t make the trip but it may be because he’s nervous about what he’d find out. His mother suffers from schizophrenia and was diagnosed with it about the age Curtis is now. He checks out some books at the library and tells a counselor at a local free clinic, with some shame that he possesses two of the five classic symptoms of a mental illness.
Still he can’t stop these dreams or this drive to improve his storm shelter. He buys gas masks, uses equipment from his job to enhance the shelter, he takes out a loan for home improvement for it, a loan his banker doesn’t advise. Samantha sees him cracking and tries to comfort him, but his boss and his coworkers and his brother shake their heads and tell him they’re worried. Curtis is worried too, about the coming storm. Because he used his company’s equipment for his personal use he is fired and thus puts Hannah’s surgery in jeopardy. He understands the strain he’s putting on his family but he knows that he’s doing this for their good and that when his terrible validation comes, his family will be prepared.
Michael Shannon is amazing in Take Shelter. He’s worked with Jeff Nichols before, in Shotgun Stories, one of the best movies of 2007, about a three brothers fighting inherited family conflicts. That movie was about the immovable past, Take Shelter is about the unstoppable future. Shannon has a perfectly serious face, capable of both stability and terrifying discomfort. He nearly walked away with Revolutionary Road (2008) in a small (though Oscar nominated) role as another mentally ill character. He can give us a man who is failing to subside the madness within him, its no wonder Werner Herzog has worked with him. In Take Shelter he is overwhelmed with shame and confusion, all of which is present on Shannon’s remarkable face. He’s allowed a powerful moment near the end when he explodes with the furor of a baptist preacher.
And beside him is Jessica Chastain, warm and decent, as she was in The Tree of Life, but practical and even headed. There is a powerful scene not long after Curtis has lost his job when Samantha consoles him with both empathy, concern and a quiet ardor for what must be done now. Jeff Nichols has, with Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) and Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), emerged as the most interesting new filmmakers of the last few years. I wish Take Shelter had the same confidence that Shotgun Stories did and that Reichardt and Bahrani seem to possess every time out but there are times when the narrative drags, or we get duplicated or unnecessary moments.
The good very much outweighs the bad, but they are generated mainly from the actors. The plot itself is actually one that’s been done many times before, a man goes crazy pursuing a dream, no one believes in him but his good wife and child. Of course, the apocalyptic nature of the man’s dream adds an interesting change. I will say I found the moments of Curtis realizing his own instability and both fighting and indulging it more interesting and scary than more routine scenes of peripheral family and friends dropping him, which the running time doesn’t skimp on.
There’s also the ending. Make no mistake, I’ll probably be thinking about it for some time, but not for the reasons the movie wants me to. I’ll be trying to decide if its works or not, something I’ve gone back and forth on since I finished the movie. At the very least, the ending changes what’s preceded it from a movie about mental health into something else entirely. I can go along with that and it certainly added an eerie sensation to the entire endeavor, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being slightly cheated, like watching the kicker of a slasher movie. However, I can put forth no ending that would have satisfied me more so perhaps it was the right choice, but I should never be wondering, even if the ending is ambiguous, if the ending of a movie is right or not. Take Shelter felt very personal to me as we share some anxieties but even removed from that it generates some of the power of the storms Curtis can’t shake, I had great admiration for it, even if it was a bit uneven.