Take Shelter could have been the best movie of 2011.
By the time it arrived at Ottawa’s little Mayfair Theatre in late December I was actually anticipating it more than I had any other film that year, beating out The Muppets and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As cliché as it sounds, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ understated little thriller had everything: nuanced performances, pitch perfect cinematography, a minimalist but undeniably effective score and a constant atmosphere of dread. But while Nichols’ sophomore feature is 99 per cent of a fantastic movie, the remaining one percent is in danger of dragging the whole cinematic boat beneath the waves (note: none of my friends have approved this analogy). To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.
As his nocturnal terrors become more frequent, so does Curtis’ waking paranoia intensify, and in time he’s torn between preparing for the ominous storm brewing in his dreams and the chance he’s inherited the schizophrenia that has plagued his mother (Kathy Baker) for most of her adult life. The film dually tracks this conflict, depicting Curtis’ inexplicable (to his friends and family) determination to build out the old storm shelter in his backyard, all the while second-guessing himself, looking for any indication his premonitions might actually be the result of mental illness.
Michael Shannon isn’t a big name in Hollywood—his most well known performance to date is likely his supporting role in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, which garnered him an Oscar nod—but he brings a quiet intensity to every one of the handful of parts I’ve seen him play, chief among them a troubled stage actor in Werner Herzog’s strange and disquieting My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. This demeanour lends itself perfectly to the role of Curtis LaForche. With the exception of one (necessary) scene, Shannon never goes over the top, preferring to let the character stew in his own paranoia, dread and shame. And while I’ve said little of Jessica Chastain and her character up until this point I should impress her excellence. With seven roles and an Oscar nomination under her belt, it’s safe to say that Chastain had a pretty fucking good year and the part of Samantha LaForche doesn’t break her streak. Throughout the film she displays measured amounts of anger, confusion and care in response to Curtis’ troubles and acts as a much needed foil.
I’ve top-loaded this review with all the necessary facts because the next 1284 words are rife with spoilers, and regardless of my opinion I’d prefer it if anyone else interested in seeing Take Shelter went into the movie with a blank slate. Consider this your last warning. Only twists and nitpicks will follow.
As the film progresses, Curtis’ paranoia and seemingly frivolous expenses eats away at both his resolve and the relationships in his life: he drops a few thousand dollars on digging equipment, including a backhoe, inadvertently jeopardizing Samantha’s hope for an ear implant operation for Hannah; when Dewart becomes a menacing figure in one of his dreams, Curtis asks their boss to put his friend on another work crew, driving a wedge between the two men. Eventually, Curtis’ erratic behaviour (coupled with misusing work equipment to construct his storm shelter) costs him his job, putting the LaForches in dire financial and personal straits. Meanwhile, he’s swallowing his pride and admitting to his doctor that there is just the slightest possibility he might be losing his mind, looking for any form of medicinal treatment—sedatives, antipsychotics, anything.
I believe every person has at least one subject, usually in their area of expertise, which they get absolutely nitpicky over when confronted with inaccuracies. I know several journalists who would readily—and angrily—balk at the actions of various fictional reporters, and I can imagine an otherwise quiet astrophysicist flipping several tables while watching Armageddon. My special interest is mental illness. I spent four years learning about the intricacies of psychoses and neuroses, and while I’m not an expert by any means I’m still learned enough on the subject that a falsified or overly theatrical depiction of a certain disorder can make me twitch. (To boot, I believe there’s an actual negative impact in that popular but inaccurate portrayals of mental illness feed back into society and warps how the average person sees someone with a disorder. But let’s save that for another article). So when I say that Take Shelter is the best film about mental illness ever made, I want you to understand how much that means.
Take Shelter’s depiction of schizophrenia—in both its treated and untreated forms—isn’t anything like in A Beautiful Mind, arguably the most well known portrayal of the condition in popular media. There aren’t any vast mental conspiracies, no imaginary friends; just a man quietly but desperately trying to make sense of the contradictory signals muddling his mental processes. He speaks to his afflicted mother, looking for any sign that their cases share similarities. He even does his research: when he finally approaches a counsellor he does so with a psychology textbook in hand, listing the positive and negative symptoms he’s sure he has (a nice touch, from a psych major’s perspective). But outside of a clinical setting, Curtis struggles to articulate his premonitions. In the wake of one nightmare wherein the LaForches’ dog becomes rabid, Curtis asks his brother to take the family mutt off his hands, offering no reasonable excuse. When he finally comes clean to his wife about his possible premonitions, he’s almost at the edge of tears trying to put it into words. There’s nothing colourful about his possible condition, no forced sentimentality, but instead the uncomfortable reality of a man losing his grip on what’s real and what’s not.
Everything comes to a fore when, one night, an air raid siren shocks the LaForches out of their slumber. Curtis hurries his family into the renovated shelter, but down in the impermeable darkness of the basement doubts start to seep in. He hears pounding wind and rain just outside the cellar door; Samantha can’t. With Hannah unable to hear for herself it becomes a tense case of one person’s word versus another’s, with Curtis, fearing for his family’s safety, unwilling to unlock the shelter and Samantha trying to relay (objective? subjective?) observations her husband is unable to process. Eventually, he reluctantly unlocks the door and discovers the bare minimum of damage from a brief windstorm or, at worst, the tail end of an actual tornado. Relieved, the family embraces in their backyard.
And so it seems an ideal place to end, until while recuperating at a rented beach house, not only Curtis and Hannah but Samantha as well catch glimpse of a massive, oncoming squall, seemingly the maelstrom Curtis has dreaded all this time. The end.
Now, I went into this movie not knowing if it was going to be a psychological or a psychic thriller. Based on the trailer and the synopsis I had read, it could have gone either way. And to be perfectly honest, I would have been fine with either interpretation. I find the idea of a modern day Noah trying to build an ark for his family while weathering (pun not intended) the criticism of his seemingly more rational neighbours just as fascinating as the medically accurate portrayal of schizophrenia this movie actually was up until its final scene. Both possibilities could have borne bunches of intellectual fruit. The problem here isn’t that Jeff Nichols made a film about a man’s struggle with his faith or a struggle with his mentality—it’s that he took the ending of the former and tacked it onto the latter, regardless of how well it meshed or if it completely contradicted everything he had previously established.
Even as a twist ending it doesn’t work. While subverting audience expectations, a good twist doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is built on a series of strategically placed clues that can’t be seen clearly until after the fact. That’s why twist-centric films like The Prestige or Incendies make for great second viewings even after the big reveal is out in the open: you can enjoy them just by looking for the various hints. None of these hints can be found in Take Shelter, and even if they exist they’re not apparent enough in retrospect to be effective. If anything the last few minutes feel like the ending of an earlier, much different draft of the script that Nichols neglected to excise from the final cut. In and of itself, the ending is an almost eye-rolling gotcha, and in the larger context of the film it inadvertently invalidates the psychological accuracy that was one of the film's driving strengths.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness had the potential to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, but that for whatever reason—budgetary limitations, time constraints, maybe even lack of interest on Carpenter’s part—that prospective film never manifested. While that fact makes me more than a little disappointed, I also know that for Prince of Darkness to have been that fantastic hypothetical movie of my dreams (nightmares, rather) it would have needed to be remade from the ground up. In Take Shelter’s case, however, the potential for true greatness isn’t just within reach, but is literally one scene away from achieving it—and not even an added scene, at that. All Nichols would have to do is trim the last five minutes. And that fact is almost inarticulately frustrating, so much that I’m tempted to get my hands on some video editing software and craft an alternate cut of my own.
I’ll impress once more: give Take Shelter a shot. Rent it, borrow it, whatever; if you have two hours free, it’s a fine enough movie to invest your time in regardless of the last five minutes. For all intents and purposes it’s an incredibly well-crafted movie, and Michael Shannon’s performance was truly snubbed for the Oscars. Again, it’s 99 per cent of a wonderful film. And hey, maybe you’ll come away with an interpretation completely different from my own.
And if that fails? Just watch Drive.