I live in a more rural area, and if there’s a storm a comin’ my family is most likely screwed!
Written By: Jeff Nichols
Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Is there a storm, or is it all in Curtis’ head? That is the massive question that Take Shelter is framed around. It is that question that has caused some to herald Take Shelter as an instant classic and for others to dismiss it as a film that ultimately betrays itself. By the time Take Shelter ended I was at the point when that question needed to be answered, yet I didn’t feel answering the question was all that necessary.
The reason I felt that answering the question wasn’t necessary is due to the core themes of the film remaining strong no matter what answer is given. In fact, Take Shelter doesn’t truly posit any questions that require an answer. It presents its themes, its characters, and its events and leaves it up to the viewer to interpret what they are seeing. This is where the individual response comes into play, and in my case I formed a response based upon Curtis dealing with a mental illness. My reading doesn’t negate the horror of what I witnessed during the film, or the ambiguity of the human mind as presented in the form of Curtis’ dreams. I find that my reading strengthens every aspect of the film, and brings out the core themes of the film in vivid fashion.
The ending of the film is the subject of the most debate among the people who have seen Take Shelter. I interpreted the ending not as the coming of a literal storm, but as Curtis once again entering a dream. The difference is that this time he is not on his own. By finally opening up to his family and seeking professional help Curtis has allies against the coming storm. There are no monsters in Curtis’ final dream, only his family, who are ready and willing to stand by him as they face the storm. The final storm isn’t a bad thing, it is simply a representation of the storm of mental illness that the family must now face.
During the course of the film reality and dream bleed into one another. I don’t believe that Mr. Nichols does this to play tricks with his audience. It’s a case of Curtis being unable to tell reality from dream, and visually Mr. Nichols conveys the convergence of reality and dream state terrifically. After a few seconds in a dream I was able to tell that it was a dream, but my knowledge of whether or not it was a dream wasn’t the point of the unreliable point of view. It’s important that the film give the sense of Curtis’ struggles with separating reality from dream. Take Shelter does this in a way that never feels cheap, and that only adds to the high stakes.
Speaking of stakes, Curtis isn’t losing his grasp of reality in a vacuum. He has a wife, a daughter, a job, a best friend, a dog, and more. Curtis has a lot to lose, and that is what makes it so hard to watch a good man lose his grasp on everything in his life that he holds dear. Take Shelter was a satisfying watch, it grabbed me emotionally and intellectually. But, there was nothing about Mr. Nichols’ film that equated to an easy watch. There’s a subdued intensity constantly bubbling under the surface during Take Shelter. At times the film is dripping with tension and suspense, but there’s never truly any release until the very end and that makes watching the film a harrowing experience.
Anchoring all of the above are the performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as Curtis and Samantha respectively. This was my first real exposure to Mr. Shannon and needless to say I was blown away. He has a physicality to him that is hard to pin down, and there is an intensity behind his eyes that could burn down a town. He has a few loud moments as Curtis, but on the whole he makes Curtis his own by using a wonderfully restrained and scared style. Miss Chastain is rock steady, she is the logical one next to Curtis’ ever deepening paranoia. Her performance is one of restraint and of knowledge. The relationship between Curtis and Samantha feels very real and very lived in. This is due to the wonderful performances from Miss Chastain and Mr. Shannon.
I don’t think my words have done Take Shelter justice. I’ve said a lot, all of it positive, but I’m not sure if I’ve adequately expressed why I loved Take Shelter as much as I did. The film took a hold of me early on and as the intensity of Curtis’ journey built so did my enthrallment with the film. Take Shelter is a great film, with a great ending, and a wonderfully stripped down view of mental illness. There are no easy outs for Curtis from his situation, and Mr. Nichols’ film refuses to allow the viewer any easy outs either. Take Shelter is deserving of its status as an instant classic, and a film that seems destine to become even more of a classic every time it is revisited.