Take Shelter (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols

By Marilyn Ferdinand

About a month ago, Matt Zoller Seitz published an article titled “Nostalgic for Everything” whose deck reads “From Midnight in Paris to The Artist to Mildred Pierce, in 2011 we wanted to be anywhere but 2011.” While I think there are several reasons for the appearance of so many movies and television series that look back rather than forward, I certainly can agree that the world in 2011 is perhaps scarier than it was during the first Great Depression, and like audiences in the 1930s, we’re all looking for the fire exits.

The flip side of escapism, another kind of film has also been on the cultural scene—the cinema of dread. From the apocalyptic Melancholia, to the torment of Shame and the menace of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the free-floating anxiety that has gripped many people in these desperate times has formed into a variety of nightmare visions at a theatre near you. To my mind, no film has grappled more directly or compellingly with our societal insanity than Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Nichols dares to offer audiences a dose of reality, as the frightening personal visions of his protagonist collide with the traumas of trying to survive in a mauled economy with a shredded social safety net.

Curtis (Michael Shannon), a crew manager for an Ohio gravel and sand supplier, is having terrifying dreams of deadly tornados and physical attacks by strangers and friends alike. The 35-year-old Curtis fears that he is developing the paranoid schizophrenia that overcame his mother (Kathy Baker) when she was his age. He seeks medical help while at the same time taking steps to protect himself and his family from the dream figures who attacked him; he puts his dog Red out of the house and has Russell (Ron Kennard), his best friend and direct report at work, transferred to another work crew. He also spends money he doesn’t have to expand a storm shelter in his backyard.

In many ways, Take Shelter is a remake of a film that has been on my mind lately, Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955). In that film, the protagonist was seized with a similar fear of disaster triggered by the initiation of American H-bomb testing on Bikini Atoll. The Japanese patriarch had seen the devastation of atomic warfare during World War II, and spared no expense to try to save his family from a horrible death with actions that seemed delusional to them. So, too, Curtis has reached the age when disaster struck his family and sensibly takes precautions against a repeat of that disaster—mental illness—while nonetheless following some potentially ruinous compulsions.

In Curtis’ case, the ruin is not a mushroom cloud, but atmospheric disaster and betrayal by those who love him. His particular anxiety centers around those who would harm his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). It is certainly possible that Curtis is descending into madness, but his fears are not exactly irrational either. Climate change has spawned superstorms like the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, and earthquakes and tsunamis have brought parts of Southest Asia and Haiti to their knees. The natural world really does have an end-of-days feel to it these days.

In addition, good jobs are as scarce as those who want and need them are plentiful. When Curtis borrows equipment from his employer without permission to dig an addition to the storm shelter, he risks losing a job that Russell and others tell him he might not be able to replace. Losing his job would mean a loss of health benefits Curtis and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) need to pay for Hannah’s cochlear implants. The very real possibility that our children’s lives will not be better than ours, which would be a first in U.S. history, is embodied in Hannah.

Michael Shannon’s disturbing face has lent an edge of crazy to a number of films, most notably Bug (2006), and so it is easy for us to buy into a psychiatrist’s recommendation that Curtis needs to begin a rigorous regimen of drugs and therapy immediately. But Shannon blunts his edges and portrays a caring family man so convincingly that it is hard to dismiss Curtis’ prophetic warning at a community dinner: “Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.” Which American does not feel that our country is tipping precariously on the edge of a disaster the likes of which none of us has experienced and might never have thought possible.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W. B. Yeats could have been talking about the United States today; certainly, screenwriter Nichols has channeled our “terrible beauty” into a film that works on several levels. He has an extremely deft hand at building suspense; a simple shot of a drill biting into stone feels claustrophobic and full of dread after he has lain the groundwork of Curtis’ growing morbidity. Watching starlings move swiftly like black, undulating clouds has always filled me with wonder; in Curtis’ eyes, of course, this strange cohesion is full of dark portend.

Nichols also makes the working-class milieu of this Ohio community real. The familial and friendly bonds, the fears and doubts, the suspicions of the community all ring true. The house Curtis and Samantha have is not the typically glossy, well-appointed home common in most films—the furnishings are well-worn, a bit tacky, and the entire home has a lived-in feel without seeming like a cliché. Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah are a likable, relatable family, and much credit goes to Chastain for giving another full-bodied performance, one of a woman whose warmth and fragile strength make us feel deeply for her and her family.

As we watch Curtis hide his problems from those he cares about even as he sinks deeper into his compulsions, we feel his fear and fear for him. At the end of the film, while Curtis and family vacation as they do every year on the Atlantic shore, Nichols offers a final vision in which Curtis faces the coming storm of insanity with his wife and daughter at his side. However, it could also be that Hannah and Samantha finally have been made to recognize the danger to their way of life. It doesn’t really matter what is “actually” taking place: no interpretation will quiet the unease of Take Shelter for long.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    29th/01/2012 to 10:07 pm

    A friend of mine stated at the end of TAKE SHELTER that the film was just then beginning before the plug was pulled. While the possibilities would obviously have taken the film in a different direction, I was personally good with the way it concluded, especially since the 20 or so minutes before it were harrowing. Shannon gave a towering performance and as you note here, Nichols does a great job with the small town atmospherics and state of mind. The pacing of this film for me was problematic but I liked it more than MARCY MARLENE and thought the picture of dread it painted was palpable.

    Very fine essay here with excellent bookends.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/01/2012 to 11:04 pm

    Sam – I think the film is offering us the beginning of the end. It really is an apocalyptic vision that pretends it’s about a descend into madness. Many people have fears, for example, that they will die at the same age as a parent. It’s irrational, but it causes them to behave in some very compelling ways. I really do see this as a film about working-class/middle-class fears for the future. It’s just brilliant because it works on that level, while still making us care deeply about this family on a personal level.

  • esco20 spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 12:32 pm

    Terriffic piece. We are in a cultural depression and movies, as is so often the case, reflect it. You spot the dread of the second decade of this century in the American soul. Always enjoy reading your posts.

  • Colin spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 1:42 pm

    “…The very real possibility that our children’s lives will not be better than ours, which would be a first in U.S. history, is embodied in Hannah.”

    This is an excellent point, one I’d totally overlooked. I *wondered* why the little girl needed to be deaf; at first I just thought that it was another way for Shannon’s character to invest unwisely or, at least, to get his priorities in a bit of a muddle. I think you’re on to something here.

    I wasn’t crazy (pardon the pun) about the movie – I preferred Shotgun Stories so much more – but it’s still a superior piece of work when compared to the rest of this year’s award hopefuls.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 2:01 pm

    Esco – thanks for stopping by and glad you like what we’re doing here. Also glad you agree that this film nails what ails.

    Colin – I have not seen Shotgun Stories (that must be corrected soon), but I am mightily impressed with Nichols based on this effort. I think the script was a little rough, but that’s about the only problem I had with it. I was shocked, though not really surprised that Russell was offended so much that he materially hurt Curtis and his family. People are on edge, lashing out, going against their best interests time and again. People really are losing it.

  • Jon spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 3:19 pm

    Great essay here and I’m looking forward to seeing this one when it comes out on DVD, soon I believe. I like your comparision of the “escapism” and “reality” films that last year struck a chord. Also your references to I Live in Fear would seem to be very apropos. I saw that Kurosawa last year. Like I said, looking forward to checking this one out.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 3:50 pm

    Hi Jon – Thanks. I believe Take Shelter is due out on DVD any minute now. I think you’ll be pleased with it.

  • Robert spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 8:39 pm

    It’s a weird movie to call my favorite of 2011. But nothing I saw last year had as strong a hold on my imagination and my guts. Surely anyone who reads the news or tracks the downward slope of culture can see that there is some kind of a reckoning coming for all of us. I’m not hoping for it, obviously, but I’ve feared it so long that I feel like I’m breathing it, as surely as Curtis is breathing the doubt around him as he watches every foundation of assumption and faith crumble underfoot. All this, and I don’t think I’m a pessimist. I have all kinds of hope. But looking at where we are *right now*, it’s hard to stoke it. And, though I loved it, this movie isn’t exactly an antidote for these negative thoughts. Am I just a glutton for gloom and doom??

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/01/2012 to 9:20 pm

    Robert – This was not my favorite film of last year, but I wouldn’t argue with your choice. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you, remember that.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 4:08 am

    Marilyn, last night I finally got the chance to watch this movie, after regrettably missing it in theaters (and during Sundance ’11, when I couldn’t get in to see it because the Wait-List lines were too long). And, now, oh boy… I think I’ve developed an obsession with it. It’s just so good, so troubling, so thought-provoking. I can’t shake it.

    I must confess that, while watching the film, I didn’t detect any allegory, but that does seem to be what every critic has been mentioning in their reviews. And it certainly makes sense that it might be a commentary on our paranoid times, although what I love so much about Take Shelter is that Nichols has structured it in such a way to make it universal; it could be set during any time, really, even though it’s great to have such a movie at a time like this, specifically. I see it kind of as a Close Encounters for this generation, albeit a much darker variation on that story.

    That scene where Curtis just explodes at the banquet… “THERE’S A STORM COMIN’!!!!!” God, that scene gave me the chills. In fact, it made me wish like hell that the movie eventually would end with a storm, but I like how Nichols compromises. He gives the audience what they want — a storm, that is — but not a very big one. And yet the finale is still Earth-shattering.

    I’m not sure how well that 5-minute coda at the beach works… had the movie ended with that shot of Curtis, Samantha and Hannah embracing by their shelter under the sunny sky, I probably would have been weeping like crazy because, to my mind, that would have been a perfect conclusion. But you may have a point that the coda is there to illustrate how the “storm” in Curtis and Samantha’s family isn’t over yet.

    Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain should make another movie together, too. For some reason I just love them playing a married couple. They could easily take on Leo & Kate!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/04/2012 to 7:59 am

    Adam – I must agree with your enthusiasm for this film, and agree that if Shannon and Chastain were in more films together, Shannon might lose that creepy label he’s always saddled with. He’s a far better actor, but seems to be suffering the fate of Boris Karloff because of his looks.

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