Take Shelter (2011)

Directed by Jeff Nichols

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Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a story about anxiety and marriage.  He wrote the story in 2008, a year into his marriage and during the financial recession of that time.  Those expected worries pervade every moment of this film, a story about a man convinced there’s a storm of biblical proportions on the horizon.

He’s Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a thirty-five year-old husband and father intent on protecting his wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah.  The problem, he understands but struggles to intuit, is that his premonition of the coming storm may be the hallucinations of unregistered schizophrenia, a fear that becomes much more clear when we learn that his mother was institutionalized for similar reasons.

Though Curtis concerns himself with the specifics of mental illness, even taking quizzes to check whether or not he suffers from problems requiring professional help, the story is more interested in the feelings of such a disease, and the ways in which we might all feel such things.

We’re immersed in his world, of course, meaning that for a time we see his nightmares, we even feel them, and just as he does, we wonder whether there’s any validity to those premonitions.

Playing both sides, in a sense, Curtis takes steps to get help, though without telling his wife, and at the same time he attracts unwanted attention as he begins building out their backyard storm shelter.  Such an endeavor forces him to take out a bank loan and later gets him fired from his job for secretly borrowing company equipment.  In other words its an effort with grave consequences, particularly for a family barely scraping by.  That his daughter is in line for an expensive procedure to help her hearing, affordable only with his work insurance, only makes things worse.

So Curtis is constantly stuck between two heavy fears, that he cannot provide for his family day to day, and that he must protect them from imminent doom.  When he finally comes clean with Samantha, only after a frightening seizure that wakes her up, he explains that though this is just a feeling, he still feels it, and he needs her to trust him.

So of course that’s where the marriage aspect comes in.  This isn’t a one-sided tale with a wife just occupying the background of the frame.  Samantha is similarly put into a corner, not sure how to handle her possibly ill husband if he can’t handle himself.

The ways she stands by her husband, as far as movie principles are concerned, may sometimes feel unrealistic, but as far as reality is concerned I found it quite believable, and certainly sincere.  She struggles for a time to hold the family together, mostly because despite Curtis’ best efforts to protect the family, he has a hard time sensing the destruction he’s causing.

As far as perspective, I’m not exactly sure how Nichols accomplishes what he does here.  We are inside Curtis’ mind, experiencing his hallucinations so that we understand the effect it has on how he perceives his life and the people in it.  Some of the nightmares are truly nightmarish, and then even just that predictable shot in which the character wakes up from the nightmare is beyond devastating.  It’s not just that Curtis wakes up sweaty and confused, but that the sound he makes as he awakens is as though he’s being reborn, a frightening transition back into reality.  It’s a primal, even horrifying gasp that really settles you into his sense of dread.

As the movie goes along, however, we stop seeing these nightmares, even though they continue to take place.  When he asks his boss to move his friend and coworker Dewart (Shea Wigham) off his team, we understand why, that he glimpsed something in his nightmare in which Dewart tried to harm him, just as his dog did.  Later he will flinch when his wife touches him, and we understand that his nightmares are turning him against even his loved ones.

It’s also around this time that we are more in tune with the ways others view Curtis.  His friends, family and unnamed townsfolk look at him with suspicion, at least a raised eyebrow.  We are pulled from inside his head so that we may see him as the others do, as an outsider, someone alien to us.

So there’s a balance here, between identifying with Curtis’ dread and seeing the ways in which he is apart from us.  We both feel for him and then lean away from him, and this allows Shannon to play into qualities of his performance that seem to be on display in many memorable Michael Shannon performances.  His eyes bug out, he averts your gaze or controls it, and basically he becomes defined by his otherness, the way he can contort himself, at least the perception of himself, to feel something other than human.

So Take Shelter is wonderful and unbearable all at the same time.  No matter the lengths to which it goes, it sums it all up with moments of what I can only think of as grace.  It’s a loving family at the start, and through the turbulence it remains one in the end.

Up Next: Poetry (2010), Rocketman (2019), Memories of Murder (2003)

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