by: Michael Shields
An exploration of Michael Shannon’s latest film, Shelter….
Warning: contains spoilers
Curtis1 is looking up, skeptically, inquisitively, at an ominous sky. His squint held by a circulating dark cloud threatening above, poised to strike. Menacing. It begins to rain, dotting and slashing Curtis’s shirt with beads of moisture. Curtis extends his hands, palms up. Rust colored droplets gather on his palm, group together, and rush off as if an orange were being compressed directly above his hands, the copper colored juice swamping Curtis’s mitts. The rain picks up. Thunder roars.
This is the opening scene of the 2011 film entitled ‘Take Shelter’, which in my opinion was an under-regarded and under-appreciated film. Two other un-words that aptly describe it would be uncomfortable, and unsettling, as it is both….but in a good way. My favorite films of the year vary little from the critics and the film buffs. ‘Hugo’, ‘The Artist’, and ‘The Beginners’ crown my list and other films such as ‘Drive’, ‘Win Win’, ‘Midnight in Paris’, and even ‘Super 8’ and ‘Moneyball’ trail soon after. But one film still holds my thoughts, still haunts me as the others do not.2
‘Take Shelter’, set in the Midwest, is the story of a construction worker named Curtis who is holding down a steady job while fathering a deaf daughter with his beautiful, loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). Curtis begins experiencing apocalyptic dreams of storms and visions of violent impending encounters, of faceless strangers trying to abduct his daughter. As these hallucinations slowly seep into his waking hours those around Curtis struggle with the fact that he may genuinely be going mad. While secretly seeking medical help, Curtis begins work on a storm shelter in his backyard. Curtis’s actions grow more erratic and he begins to alienate his family and friends, yet little deters him from working towards preventing the catastrophic doomsday scenarios brewing inside of his mind.
‘Take Shelter’ explores the way fear and paranoia can eat away at one’s mental health. It delves into the choice a man must make between sanity and faith. It even takes the time to glance at today’s shaky economic conditions. It is safe to say that writer/director Jeff Nichol’s put together something pretty special here.3
Let us take a moment, catch our breath, and discuss how we proceed. Moving forward you will find nothing but spoilers of the highest order. Ahead I fervently dissect the ending of the film and even the meaning behind the picture in it’s entirety. Hopefully you were enticed enough by the above synopsis to take in the film, and if so I hope you return for further discussion. If you have seen ‘Take Shelter’, ride with me…..
The conclusion of ‘Take Shelter’, for some, left much to be desired. This can often be the case when a film’s ending is open to interpretation. I have always enjoyed these type of endings as you get to create your own reality, you get to finish the story yourself. With that said I do not believe that is the case here. I believe what occurred was spelled out clear as day.
I do understand the confusion that occurs when a film is ripe with dream sequences. You can never be truly sure what is real until, in this specific case, the moment Curtis wakes up screaming, shivering, and awash with sweat and fear.4 Also, the hallucinations and dream sequences seem to increase in duration and frequency as the film progresses, as his paranoid delusions intensify. So, it is an option that the conclusion is another dream, another hallucination. But I think not.
‘Take Shelter’ was a well put together, often devastatingly sad, film about a man possibly facing the onset of paranoid schizophrenia.The film takes you right into his home, and into his place of work, to detail how a disease such as this could rip apart a family and tear to shreds a life. It shows a seemingly rational man trying to deal with the problem discerningly…consulting help, taking pills, and fighting against the reality of the delusions constantly. But Curtis also bought into his dreams. He saw the dreams as a possibility and acted on them. When his dog attacked him in a dream he awoke to action, building a fenced in lawn area for the dog and eventually giving him away to his brother. When his best friend became a threat to him in a dream he distanced himself from him in real life and so on. Although he was being told by the world he was sick he never fully bought in. He prepared. He used the information he was given in dreams and delusions and armed himself for the worst.
Curtis battled with himself, but when he reached that fork in the road and was forced to choose, he chose both. He made preparations to deal with both realities he was potentially facing: lunacy5 or the Armageddon. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”.6 Curtis was ready, regardless.
So, when it comes to the waning moments….it could possibly be a dream. But I see it rather as vindication. And that vindication changes the way the entire film is viewed. Instead of a sorrowful film about a man struggling with a debilitating disease I see it now as a film about the way the world would treat a prophet (although a doomsday prophet, the worst and most dangerous kind). Imagine if you were seeing, in hallucinations and dreams, the beginning of the end. Because of the inconceivable way you were getting this message you couldn’t rationally tell people to get ready….it’s coming. You would sound mad, as Curtis did. We saw it almost destroy his life, then ultimately probably save it.
In the film’s final moments, as catastrophic storms loom in the distance, his wife begins to realize what is going on. She turns and looks at Curtis and he, with daughter in arms, just nods at her. The nod is not the I-told-you-so nod you might expect. It was calm. It was collected. He was not in shock at all in what he is seeing, as he knew it was coming, a part of him at least. It was an I-got-us nod. “I’m ready”. “Let’s go”.
He was far from an insane man at that point.
- Played to perfection by the incomparable Michael Shannon, most notably of Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination). I fortuitously saw him perform a one man play called ‘Mistakes were Made’ that will possibly go down as my favorite night at the theater period. [↩]
- Not entirely true. Thoughts of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ and ‘Another Earth’ still resonate, still molest the safer waking moments of the day with distressing thoughts. [↩]
- The acting in this film is superb. Besides Michael Shannon’s Oscar-worthy performance both Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham (you may know him as Nucky Thompson’s sheriff brother in ‘Boardwalk Empire’) shine. [↩]
- This weeks episode of Mad Men, entitled ‘Mystery Date’ is a prime example of this, as we were led to believe Don straggled and stashed beneath his bed a former bunk-mate named Andrea until we are let in that this was just a fever-induced hallucination. [↩]
- In the film Curtis’s mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. A very intelligent author friend of mine pointed out that the chances of Curtis actually having the same disease is relatively low, about 12.5%. [↩]
- One of John Wooden’s finest maxims. I use it at every opportunity. [↩]