The process of mental illness is a tragic one to witness. Rarely is there a sudden gush of madness or immediate personality change. Rather, it begins as a drip from a broken faucet, gradually filling the mind, eventually overflowing into the lives of those afflicted and their loved ones. A person with mental illness usually knows when their symptoms began and can track the progress of their disease. It is undoubtedly terrifying, particularly when the real and imagined can flow together so seamlessly. If the eyes and ears cannot be trusted, the world becomes insurmountable. Other people seem like shades, illusions of a former life. Or they may be dangerous entities, bent on the destruction of safety and security. Take Shelter, the penultimate film in the AEC Independent Film series at the Majestic 12, forces the audience to see through the eyes of a man whose life is coming apart at the seams. On one hand, it is a starkly surreal look at the unraveling of a mind. In another context, it is a thematic look at the underlying fears of a constantly shifting and unstable society.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) has a good life in a small Ohio town. He is a member of a vanishing group; he is a blue-collar worker, with good pay and benefits and decent job security. His wife sells handmade clothes and crafts on the weekends, and takes care of their daughter Hannah, who is deaf. They are even able to save enough money to travel to a beach house on Myrtle Beach once a year. By all accounts, Curtis is an American success story. But he begins to feel that something just isn’t right. He can’t explain it. It’s just something he knows. This is linked to a series of seemingly prophetic nightmares, dreams of thick brown rail and dark funnel clouds, threatening the safety of his family. The dreams feature those close to him; his dog, his friends, and even his wife all become vaguely threatening figures. He finds himself watching the sky for signs of danger. He sees birds flying in strange patterns, experiences auditory hallucinations of thunder out of clear blue sky, and sees dangerous storms where other see only sunlight. He knows his family has a history of mental illness—his mother was committed to a state institution for paranoid schizophrenia in her early 30s. Curtis does his best to seek a medical solution for his problems, but can’t shake the feelings of dread. Ultimately, he sacrifices his family’s financial security to expand the tornado shelter in his backyard.
Take Shelter is driven by the subtle performance of Michael Shannon. Curtis is a role that could easily be overacted. Shannon’s understatement of the character is all the more powerful when the rug of sanity is ultimately torn away. Curtis only drops his façade of control once during the film, and that scene alone could qualify Shannon for an Oscar. The climax of the film, a scene that requires Curtis to either succumb to his disease or fight it, is powerful and affecting. It is one of hope and resolve, a much-needed relief from a stressful and discouraging experience.
There are a few missteps in this film, with one that seemed to me to be an especially odd choice given the tone. There are only two ways to view the events of the film: They are either figments of a fragile mind, the beginnings of a lifelong battle with schizophrenia, or they are prophetic, apocalyptic visions. The entire film seems to lean one way, only to turn the narrative on its ear in the end. Given the strength of the performances, it makes little sense to throw a plot twist at the audience. It cheapens the difficult work the audience has put into the movie; and given the length of the film and the subject matter, the film is work. The length and pace of the film are necessary to tell the story and to give the actors a chance to completely develop their characters. There are two movies here. One was developed wonderfully and deserved an ending. The other should have been made for TV.
Missteps aside, Take Shelter is both a window into the fragility of the mind and a commentary on the fear of the unknown dangers of chance. Our security is tenuous at best, sometimes shattered by the wrong wind. Safety is dependent on both the power of the storm and our ability to weather it. The film is about a man, but the subtext points to our society as a whole. It feels like rain.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon,
Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Running time: 120 minutes