dir: Jeff Nichols
Michael Shannon is the new Christopher Walken, only even more unsettling. And now they’re giving him lead roles in movies, which is going to scare even more children down the track.
Scooch closer, children, don’t make me tell you again about the scooching.
Take Shelter is a meditative, unsettling, measured story about a man overwhelmed by dread. Curtis (Michael Shannon) has dreams and visions of something awful that’s about to happen, and yet, because of his family history of mental illness, he allows for the possibility that it all might just be in his head.
This is a man who sees his dreams as omens, and takes actions in the ‘real’ world, which, obviously, look like the actions of an insane man, after a while. He knows they’re dreams, but, for him, it would be a crime not to prepare for what is coming. He loves his family too much to ignore the signs, and sees as absolute his obligation to do right by all of them.
His wife (Jessica Chastain, who I think was in every movie released in 2011), apart from being a redhead, is a rock, is a cornerstone, is a heroically supportive woman, but even she has her limits. Anyone would. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, though, she’s the embodiment of the concept of standing by your man to the bitter end.
They live in one of those places in the States, those flat, featureless, godforsaken places where tornadoes seem to happen all the time. By godforsaken, I really mean that the Christian, American God seems to really hate the people living in these places, and so He keeps sending twisters at them to destroy their mobile homes and double-wides. Why does He hate them so? I dunno, it doesn’t seem fair, does it?
A cautious approach to tornado safety wouldn’t seem inappropriate. It wouldn’t seem to be obsessive compulsive. Having a storm shelter, then, would seem entirely reasonable. When you start installing air extractors and buying gas masks, though, people are less understanding.
We’re not entirely sure, a lot of the time, what exactly is going on. I mean, the assumption that he’s just bonkers and acting bonkers is a safe bet, but the more the film plays out, the more our confusion grows, as does Curtis’s. The problem is, and when I label it a problem, it works beautifully as far as the storytelling aspect of the film, that Curtis’s actions are rational actions. The stuff he does, like the additions to the storm shelter, or caging the family dog after the dog attacks him in a dream, freak people out, but the actions themselves are rational actions. It’s not like he’s smearing peanut butter on the television and saying that it’s stopping the aliens behind the moon from fornicating in his ears.
They’re rational actions, for completely irrational reasons. He knows they’re dreams, we know they’re dreams, but he can’t ignore them, even as he knows how loony his actions might seem in the waking world.
He’s not an entirely sympathetic character, for a very long time within the movie, and that’s a combination of the script and the fact that Michael Shannon looks like such an odd cookie. He’s played mad-as-a-cut-snake in countless flicks already, to the point where we assume his characters are nuts even if the script doesn’t say as much. He looks either crazy or fucking angry all the time, which, though unfortunate from a picking up perspective, used well, is gold in movies.
He’s not sympathetic, but, as the flick progresses, we, I think, start to care more about him, and his family. He has a deaf daughter, after all, whom he is generally protective of, and how could you not care about such a vulnerable creature.
His nightmares are getting worse, and they begin to manifest a physical aftermath. He seeks some medical help, but it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. He visits his mother, who has been institutionalised since the 80s because of her paranoid schizophrenia. He asks her if she ever saw any of the stuff he’s been seeing, and she strongly disagrees, which gives him some comfort, but increases our confusion.
Is he mad, and it’s all a bunch of hallucinations? Is he sane, and these things are really happening, or are going to happen? Or, I just thought of another possibility which the flick trades on, could he be ‘crazy’ but also right at the same time?
He tries to deal with his problems practically: he thinks his mind might be like a toaster, and goes to a counsellor stating that it needs to be fixed, like it’s a matter of some replacement parts or rewiring. Or, preceding that, he takes books on mental illness out of the local library, textbooks at that. He examines the literature and compares that to his experiences, establishing clearly that he allows for the fact that he made be having auditory and visual hallucinations.
I mean, we ‘know’ they’re hallucinations, because it’s some crazy shit, but he’s not supposed to know either way, is he? The crucial element when it comes to crazy people, like the ones you avoid on the street and public transport, or have regretfully cut out of your life, is that even after years of medication and ample evidence to the contrary, they’ll still tell you that they’re not paranoid schizophrenics, they’ve just got psychic powers, is all, and the rest of us are trying to keep them down because we’re jealous.
To put it very glibly and simplistically, at least as far as movies are concerned, crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. That’s what makes them crazy. Curtis allows for the possibility, which would seem to indicate that maybe, just maybe, he’s not.
All this plays out in a way that maximises the tension, the exquisite tension, that the film wants to and does sustain until the end. Except for one key moment, Curtis doesn’t get a sandwich board or a sign and parade on a street corner screaming about the end of the world being nigh. He does, when provoked, have a screaming attack in a public place that shames him and terrifies or discomfits everyone around him, but on the most part, he’s quiet, and controlled. Coiled like a spring, I’d even describe him as. You’re not expecting him to explode in horrible ways, but you are waiting for him to be forced to make a decision between what he thinks is happening, and what his family actually want, because eventually the two won’t intersect.
It’s a very strong movie, though that doesn’t make it an enjoyable flick for its entire length. The tension is almost unbearable, and the measured pace, the slow way in which it all plays out, amplifies the experience. I would hesitate to call it almost a horror film, since even though Curtis’s view of the world is suffused with dread, we feel his fear, but don’t necessarily feel fear ourselves. We do wonder, however, how it’s all going to play out, and wonder as well, whether the world will be left standing at film’s end.
The mistake you can make while watching it is by focussing only on the destination; that destination being some definitive diagnosis or judgement as in: that the flick can only be satisfying to me, the viewer, once the declaration of Sane or Not Sane is made. It’s a false dichotomy, and it makes the mistake of turning the flick into a taxi ride: where getting to the destination in the quickest time is prized over all other considerations. The ambiguity inherent in the story, and in the way the movie is put together and the story shown to us, means that thinking about it like that is unfulfilling.
It’s far better to see it as a movie about a man who sees something terrible coming on the horizon, in the form of apocalyptic storms, and swarms of birds, and takes steps to save himself and his family. Leave the diagnoses to the professionals, all of whom drop the ball conclusively in the flick.
Everyone does strong work in the flick, and Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain both deserved Oscar recognition for these roles (I’d even put Chastain ahead of Shannon, since her work grounds the flick and both characters, and she has the harder task of making her relatively ‘unremarkable’ character vitally important). But none of that really matters.
I’m not sure whether I’ll want to watch this again, or whether it will stay with me long term. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I watched it, though, so something must has resonated with me. I found it pretty affecting, but not as a portrayal of a man descending into madness and pulling everyone else down with him, but as a man with problems who deals with them the only way he knows how: by making things worse and risking everything in the bargain.
It’s something we men excel at.
But don’t get all big-headed, ladies, you’re talented in this regard too.
8 times I see signs in the clouds as well, but usually they’re just telling me to go and drink more out of 10
“Is anyone else seeing this?” – Take Shelter