The dreams come regularly now. They start with a storm, a gigantic ominous storm, with towering dramatic clouds. Rain falls from the sky, but it has more density than water, and the drops clump up on the hands like sticky motor oil. Birds fly in unusual formations, wheeling and swirling in a giant pack, like a swarm of bees. People appear in the rain, faceless still presences, who mean Curtis and his family harm. Curtis has an overwhelming feeling of helplessness in his dreams. He cannot save his daughter, he cannot save his house. He wakes up hyperventilating (and sometimes worse).
You got a good life, Curtis. Seriously. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, ‘That’s good. That guy’s doing something right.’
Curtis (Michael Shannon) and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) have a good life, as Curtis’ friend Dewart observes. They live in Ohio in a small ranch house on the edge of a huge field. Curtis has a good job in construction. Samantha does needlepoint and sells it at a craft fair every Saturday for extra cash. Every Sunday they go to church and then have dinner at home. Their daughter is deaf, and they are looking into cochlear implants, but they need to find a specialist who will take their insurance. The 1-800 number they are supposed to call is a maze of bureaucracy and confusion. Curtis and Samantha love each other. It looks like life for millions of people, with its ups and downs, and it is good. Even with all of the frightening things that happen in Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols has given us an image of a family that looks real in a way that few families do in movies.
This is a great tribute, too, to the acting of Shannon and Chastain, and everyone else in the film. Even the extras don’t seem to be actors, trying to get their SAG cards. They look like real townspeople in a real place. Atmosphere is key in a film like Take Shelter, and the nightmare that begins to unfold is that much more terrifying because everything seems so rock-solid and recognizable.
What happens when you start to lose your grip on reality? What do you do? Who do you talk to if you start to see things that other people don’t see? The film takes these questions seriously.
Curtis is a stoic gentle man, a guy who does the right thing in life. He cares about his family. He is responsible. But he starts to lose hold of those things as the dreams start to bleed into his waking life. He no longer trusts his interpretation of reality. “Is anyone else seeing this?” he says out loud, while staring at a spectacular lightning storm by the side of the highway. He hears thunder when other people don’t. He sees clouds gathering out of a clear blue sky. In one of the dreams, the family dog, Red, attacks him and bites his arm. That arm hurts Curtis throughout the following day. And he can’t shake the feeling now, the bad feeling, about Red. He doesn’t want his daughter playing with Red anymore. He builds a pen in the backyard and puts Red in there, to stay. He says to the dog, “Sorry, Red. It just has to be this way for a little while.”
His wife doesn’t understand. “What did Red do? Why is he out back now? Hannah loves Red.”
There is added psychological pressure because Curtis’ mother was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic when he was 10 years old, and has been in assisted living ever since (Kathy Baker has an extraordinary cameo as his mother). But this is the real world, where mental illness is just not something you talk about. Curtis goes to the library and gets out books on mental illness and schizophrenia. He secretly goes to the doctor who prescribes him sleeping pills and tells him he should see a psychiatrist. But the psychiatrist is in Columbus, too far away.
Meanwhile, Curtis’ sense of impending doom starts to grow so acute that he can’t shake the feeling that he should be building out the tornado shelter in their backyard. It should be a bigger space, it should sustain life for some time. He buys a huge metal container, borrows a tractor and a hauler from work on the weekend, and digs a giant hole. This is the first moment his wife realizes what his plans are. He has taken out a big loan to finance his project. Chastain’s reaction to this development, the fact that he would make such a huge financial decision without speaking to her first, especially with the big expense of their daughter’s implant coming up, is a mix of confusion and rage.
But there’s fear for her, too. Madness is an irrevocable diagnosis. During a late-night difficult talk, Curtis, overwhelmed with fear, finally confides in Samantha. He tells her about the dreams. He tells her about the storm and the motor oil rain. It is not easy for a man like Curtis to admit such weaknesses. Michael Shannon plays it superbly, without a drop of condescension. He loves his wife, she is there for him, but he says to her, after a long pause, “You know what I come from.” His mother’s fate hangs in the room between them.
Trying to maintain a normal life, and keep up appearances, is too much stress. When you are convinced that the storm you are seeing is real, or, at the very least, a prophecy of an apocalypse to come, small issues like paying attention when your boss talks to you or meeting your obligations to show up for family Sunday dinner, is too much. But what is the alternative? If he “gives in” to the dream entirely, then he knows what is waiting for him. Institutionalization. Being taken away from his family. Take Shelter really gets the inchoate fear of madness.
As long as Curtis tries to chip away at the fears (putting Red in the pen in the backyard, stocking the tornado shelter with canned goods), he feels like he will be able to maintain. But the dreams escalate. He wakes up and he has wet the bed. He wakes up in a seizure and he has chewed the inside of his mouth to shreds, leaving blood on the pillow. Samantha is terrified. They both are terrified.
The feeling of doom in Take Shelter is relentless: it starts from the opening shot and escalates, slowly, throughout. The film is a masterpiece of mood and tension. There are times when we aren’t sure whether or not what we are seeing is real. Take Shelter also works because of small observational details like the small bartering war Samantha gets into at the craft fair, or the look on Jessica Chastain’s face when an insurance agent wades through the maze of bureaucracy to give her the name of a specialist who will help her daughter. It’s so REAL. This is an actress with great compassion. Anyone who has ever tried to get an answer from a 1-800 number, or who has tried to make sense of the byzantine complexity of health insurance, will recognize the look on Chastain’s face. The doom in Take Shelter works so well because all of these details are so exquisitely observed.
We feel the loss of stability. We fear what will happen to Curtis, to his daughter, his wife.
Events escalate. The dream-world impacts the real. Curtis loses his job. He reads books on mental illness by the light of a lantern out in the tornado shelter. He buys gas masks at the local hardware store. He tells his wife that he has the feeling that “something is coming … something that is …. not right.” Finally, in a devastating scene, the family goes to a Lion’s Club dinner at a local hall, and by that point you can sense that the community knows that something bad is going down with Curtis. A fight breaks out between Curtis and his former best friend Dewart (the wonderful Shea Whigham), and it is that event that makes Curtis snap. His fury, when let loose, knows no bounds. Shannon is superb. You get the feeling that even though what he is experiencing is awful, there must be some relief to finally let it out in the open. He KNOWS something bad is coming. And HE is ready. Are they??
A storm does come, an actual tornado, and Curtis is finally in his element. When disaster strikes, he knows what to do. He is prepared, he has lived it in his mind obsessively for months. But when the storm is over, and the time comes to open the door again, he hesitates.
I had mixed feelings about the last 5 minutes of Take Shelter at first. I had responded so personally to Curtis’ fears of being mad, and Shannon’s beautiful portrayal of a man on the brink of losing it. I felt something was lost in the transfer in the final revelation. That initial impression, however, didn’t last. I thought about it a lot. The final image stayed with me. And it seemed to me, after much consideration, that it was a bold and thought-provoking ending, which took nothing away from the rest of the film. Sometimes I do have to sit with things. I process things slowly.
The ending also makes Take Shelter perfect for multiple viewings. The second the screen went to black, I wanted to rewind to the beginning and watch again. The final image is proof that you don’t need to do too much to create an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Sometimes all you need is a reflection of a black cloud in a glass door. It’s as simple as that. One image, and the entire bottom drops out of a life. And where will you take shelter now? Where is there left for you to go?
Take Shelter was one of the best films of 2011.