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.