Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ sophomore directorial effort, concerns itself with how crazy a person’s assertions must be before we dismiss them completely. The film warps our sense of storytelling perspective by allowing us to objectively watch a man fall deeper and deeper into psychosis while also abruptly thrusting us into his point of view as though these visions completely make sense. Outside of his perspective, Take Shelter never even considers that its main character isn’t crazy.
Curtis lives with his wife, Samantha, and hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah, in a small ranch house in Ohio. Everything about this family screams contemporary American life. They struggle with topical issues like health insurance, job security, and a desperate need to save up for that annual beach vacation. Things begin to go awry when Curtis starts having such intense nightmares that he awakes in physical pain. The nightmares then turn to actual visions of an oncoming storm. Naturally, nobody else sees the storm.
Contrary to standard Horror fare, Take Shelter doesn’t allow the horror elements to carry the weight of the film. Instead, we only are in “scary parts” for brief bursts. The majority of the picture watches Curtis as he negotiates his visions, first secretly and then out in the open as his behavior begins to negatively affect his livelihood. Curtis doesn’t spend Take Shelter trying to convince people that he’s not crazy. In fact, Curtis immediately assumes he is crazy just like everyone else does. He stays up nights reading books about mental illness and goes to a counselor. Curtis fears that he may be experiencing the onset symptoms of schizophrenia that consumed his mother 25 years earlier. I can’t think of another film where the main character experiencing otherworldly visions assumes these visions are actually just illusions of his own mind. We spend the film waiting for Curtis to come to grips with his visions without wondering whether he might not actually be crazy at all.
In some ways, Take Shelter’s greatest success is commenting upon how it’s easy for people to dismiss others when their behavior is out of the ordinary. Not only do the other characters brush Curtis aside, but as an audience we never wonder about his stability either. As a result, the film sometimes comes off as motionless. It’s frustrating to watch a film that doesn’t seem concerned with advancing its plot only with allowing a crazy man to decide how to cope with his newly discovered craziness. That, however, is the best trick Take Shelter pulls. If the apocalyptic storm really was coming, would it present itself in the form of a CGI produced action scene or a slow moving tornado on the horizon? Take Shelter believes the latter. If you look closer, Curtis’ sensory-deprived daughter also stares uncommunicative in the direction of the visions that Curtis sees. It’s never mentioned but we must assume that she too can see the storm coming. Maybe Curtis’ mom, the “crazy” one, was actually onto something as well. If we believe somebody is crazy then everything they say and do is perceived as crazy; little can be done to change that.
Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as Curtis. His sunken, somewhat creepy, face immediately presents a man whose stability must be questioned. Shannon, smartly, plays Curtis as straight as he’s ever been. He never buys into the craziness his looks can purport. Curtis comes off as a weathered farmhand fresh out of the dust bowl who simply wants to live his normal life with his normal family. As his wife, Jessica Chastain pulls off another stellar turn. The hardest thing to do in acting is act normal. Yet, Chastain has an uncanny ability to make normal seem so effortlessly entertaining. Many times in the film, I thought, “that’s exactly what my girlfriend would act like.” Being “normal” is especially difficult when playing the almost impoverished wife of a man predisposed to insanity and now getting a little insane himself. The rest of the cast fills out the world nicely, though the majority of them come off as dry cut-outs just going through the motions of Curtis’ world. Truthfully, Curtis is so engulfed in his thoughts that cardboard interactions are about all he can achieve.
Social commentaries abound in Take Shelter, by way of the aforementioned economic struggles and also through strange pieces of Curtis’ visions. It’s easy to say that something biblical is going on with this coming storm. Perhaps the Lord has finally sent a rain to wash away all the filth of humanity. But what if this is all just a man-made construction? What if humans are what sends this storm into motion? Maybe it’s not the supreme being we should fear but those people right outside the door. Curtis’ visions begin including people. Often these are white men in suits who stare into Curtis’ window or try to steal his daughter. Who are these men? Why won’t they just let Curtis live a normal life? Perhaps we should wonder why these men, as representations of all man, couldn’t have left nature be. Now look what they’ve gone and caused. But, again, Curtis is just crazy, right?
Take Shelter is quite unlike any other horror film I’ve seen; a horror film that rarely tries to scare. So controlled is the storytelling that cheap fears is the last thing I wanted to feel while watching this picture. An intuitive and intelligent film that puts the audience in the driver’s seat for what’s occurring onscreen. Our own preconceived notions of human behavior as well as horror storytelling are put to the test. Like the crazy man onscreen, are we just so convinced that what see is real that there couldn’t possibly be any other way? That’s the catch-22 about mental illness. You can be very aware you are enduring it but the obsession to stop it can eat away at your mind only causing you to fall deeper and deeper into the abyss. Take Shelter is a film about an entire world on the precipice of psychosis.