Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

The foreboding gray skies of Take Shelter evoke childhood for me; for a brief period before my adolescence, perhaps inspired by having seen Twister on a gigantic screen at the old UA theater, I was terrified of storms. A single clap of thunder would send me off tormented down the hallway, curiously to sit in front of the huge sliding glass doors in our living room to stare wide-eyed and nervous out into certain death. Death of course never came, but the thunder popped and clattered plenty, and I must have mistaken hundreds of things for the fearsome roar of the dreaded tornado that never arrived. Oddly enough, hurricanes themselves — fairly common around here — never had this sort of effect on me. Michael Shannon’s Curtis in this movie lives in Ohio, hardly a hurricane target and far afield from Tornado Alley, but his nightmares of a stormy apocalypse that weather.com will not predict refuse to leave him alone, and they rip him apart.

As the invisible motor oil rain falls only on him, his life falls away and his family, too — as his behavior grows more erratic, his wife Samantha, brilliantly played by Jessica Chastain, tries to sympathize but seizures give way to emotional distance from both her and their daughter, which gives way to irrational actions (“borrowing” equipment from work, making outrageous demands and generally behaving vindictively) that cause him to lose his job. This is all driven by a fierce and eternally admirable desire to protect his brood, but from what? It seems that these visions signify nothing more than the onset of schizophrenia, already suffered by Curtis’ mother, and so as the situation escalates it appears to him in his more collected moments that he must seek help. We see him doing just that — consulting his library, then a psychiatrist, and still rubbing up against frustration and dread.

This seems, then, a parable about domestic despair and crisis, one which maybe stretches itself a bit thin in visualizing Curtis’ fantasies and doesn’t have a whole lot that’s original to say about schizophrenia and the resultant suffering except perhaps in terms of its impact upon a strong and loving family unit. I must commend the fact that the central couple’s devotion to one another is never in question; they have the sort of relationship that leads Curtis to just quietly affirm his belief in the importance of his day-to-day existence, one which he now finds threatened whether from inside or out. (I’m not sure using the fact that his friends want to have a threesome and he finds that sort of laughable is appropriate shorthand for this, but whatever.) If you’re thinking of The Sixth Sense here, you’re not alone — both films apply schizophrenia as a plot device and a red herring. Unfortunately, Take Shelter performs this act in a fashion so cynical that it shirks entirely its opportunity to illuminate against the stigma attached to mental illness… and casts the only intermittently inspired first two acts of the film in a negative light retroactively. But that’s all a matter of interpretation, as we’ll see.

The storms, real only to Curtis and to us, in the film have the rhythmic ebbing and flowing intensity of the attacks in The Birds; despite less than stellar special effects, they give the film a note of real poetry. And as much a Screenwriting 101 trick as it may sound like, there’s something moving in the way that Curtis’ outbursts and his gradual loss of grip on reality seem finally to be nearly tangible as their own sort of physically looming danger. Our disorientation becomes his — what’s a dream and what’s not becomes unclear, and we understand when his knee-jerk instinct to rescue his own kicks in because we can feel it happening to us. The sense of loss of control inherent to Shannon’s disease is just as strong as his terrified befuddlement when he’s in the car with his little girl and seems to lose all visibility, a moment that’s nail-bitingly real as a thriller setpiece and mournfully appropriate as metaphor.

Unfortunately, unless you find a way to whip it around to your viewpoint and interpretation as many online defenders of the film have, Take Shelter is finally a failure because of its ending. I admit that I take it at face value and this isn’t necessarily what’s intended, but given the information we’re provided throughout the film I have a lot of trouble dredging up sympathy for director Jeff Nichols’ screenplay, which seems cheap and clumsy like the worst impulses of M. Night Shyamalan, only with arthouse pretenses added. The last scene on Myrtle Beach certainly looks to me like a literal attempt at a twist, one that clumsily recasts everything before it and renders a lot of it something akin to pointless. (To start with, if Shannon’s character isn’t sick and does somehow “know,” how? Why? And please don’t tell me it has something to do with that circumvented religious conversation toward the beginning.)

Like I said, others have their own take on the matter, and I could see recommending Take Shelter if I felt that the finale didn’t mean what I think it means. But there’s little evidence I can see of the metaphoric stuff a lot of people have found in it — that the “storm” is schizophrenia and we’re not meant to take this as anything but another dream; problem is, it carries none of the signifiers of a dream used up to this point and therefore breaks its own rules if that’s the case. Which I doubt, but Nichols isn’t talking. By making Curtis not a lost soul but a prophet, who saw looming danger before it came (and the child’s signage of the word “storm” makes it hard to reduce this to what Nichols claims is the “important” bit, that the family is all united in seeing the danger now), he wrecks a straightforward and interesting if somewhat hackneyed and flawed drama about mental illness with gotcha! claptrap — a decision so wrongheaded, so much a slap in the face of all portrayal of medicine and sanity in the film, that it’s hard to remember or focus on much else here.

On the other hand, Take Shelter is required viewing to some extent strictly because of the performances. Shannon is outstanding, full-bodied and low-key and believable as both a genuinely good-hearted man (refreshingly successful in a profession, construction, toward which American movies tend to condescend) and a prisoner of himself grasping frantically for his last connections to the real world. It’s too bad the idiotic wrapup lets him down so completely. Meanwhile, after finding Chastain mediocre in The Tree of Life (but who wasn’t) and just terrible in Zero Dark Thirty, I finally understand here why she is so broadly acclaimed; from start to finish, her work here is completely honest and carries a ring of soulful truth — you really understand immediately how much she loves her husband and wants him to be well, and there’s maybe no moment so forgiving in any film when, after the best scene in the picture, Curtis’ off-the-rails freakout at a company luncheon, she can no longer lash out at him and her inability to understand, and instead simply reaches out in a fit of compassion and love. That portrait of the “sickness and health” aspect of marriage is raw and haunting, and beautiful, and it’s enough in and of itself to keep me from being able to dismiss this disappointing film.

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