Reviewer Zach Boren
Standing outside of his home in rural Ohio, Curtis (Michael Shannon) looks towards the sky and sees an oncoming storm. This storm is like nothing he has seen before. He recognizes that it threatens him, threatens his family, his town, and his sanity. Then Curtis wakes up.
This dream, like the storm in it, is something that Curtis cannot comprehend. It couldn’t just have been a nightmare. In the coming days and weeks, Curtis has this dream again and again; he begins to see and hear the storm whilst he is awake. These visions get worse, become more terrifying. In one dream, Curtis’ dog attacks him and bites his arm. The next day, that same arm hurts. What are these visions? Is Curtis prophetic or is he mad?
In Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols has made a film that both intimately explores Curtis’ psychological unravelling and examines a greater widespread affliction. You can read Take Shelter in one of two ways. Curtis is a man in the midst of a psychotic crisis, struggling to face the possibility that he, like his mother, is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia or some other mental illness. This is but one aspect of the film’s exploration of inheritance, the gift and the curse of family.
Curtis’ young daughter, Hannah, is deaf and, though her condition is different to the mental deterioration of her grandmother, her ailment is thematically significant. It is Hannah whom Curtis is trying to protect; in his visions, she is often with her father and as the walls close in on them and the storm hits, Curtis puts himself between her and annihilation. It could be suggested that, by doing this, Curtis is trying to protect Hannah from being captured by the storm, from being captured by his mother’s and his own madness.
Curtis wisely seeks treatment, recognizing his symptoms. This self-awareness, however, does not prevent him from believing his visions and acting under their assumption. It’s in this way that the film tries to negotiate the relationship between awareness and compulsion. Curtis’ visions are warning him, they are telling him that he must build a shelter for his family to survive. Despite his mother’s active psychosis and his own questionable grip on reality, Curtis sets about building this shelter. His wife (Jessica Chastain) and his friend (Shea Whigham) both express concern for this plan and the dangerous lengths to which Curtis is ready to go. Fear is driving him; he becomes obsessed with this storm, compelled to build this shelter. Curtis is trapped between hope and fear; he hopes that he is not going crazy, but he fears for his family’s safety. This inner conflict is best illustrated as Curtis continues to work on his shelter whilst he is reading a book about diagnosing mental illness. He is in a 21st century complex; he is aware that he may be going mad, but this knowledge cannot and does not inhibit his obsessive drive to build the shelter.
There are clear allegories throughout Take Shelter. Nichols uses the ambiguity of the storm to explore this moment in the American psyche. Curtis is representative of America; he, like everyone else, is terrified of what’s to come but can’t know what that is. This storm can be likened to the ongoing financial crisis, but that definition is limiting. Yes, Nichols clearly demonstrates the consequences of this economic apocalypse: Curtis is fired for using company equipment in the building of his shelter and, furthermore, loses the health insurance that would have provided cochlear implants for his daughter. This storm, however, is amorphous. America, like the rest of the world, is afraid of what’s coming. It’s hard to breathe in the country air, so thick and full of dread.
Take Shelter poses a number of questions: is this dread justified or imagined? Is this storm inevitable? Do we, like Curtis, secretly hope that all of this is the work of destiny because that way it unburdens us of our responsibility?
Zachary Boren has been Film Coordinator for The British Independent Film Awards and is a regular contributor to the Raindance Film Festival.