I’ve come to consider “Take Shelter” again. This was the seldom viewed and emotionally tense film about what was either madness or apocalypse. My writing here is thematic and will do little to help with understanding the storyline, but this movie is clearly in my “if you haven’t seen it, you should” category.
What little (and it has been very little) criticism leveled about this film involves not coming down in one place or the other when it comes to Curtis’ (the film’s protagonist) mental state, though that is not what Jeff Nichols was getting at when directing this picture. The delusions of schizophrenia and the vision of prophecy are intentionally confused allowing the viewer to take what they will from the film. I understand that device is overplayed in the deconstructionist nature of post-modern literature and film, but in the case of “Take Shelter” it works and Nichols is hardly to be blamed if ambiguity has been so prevalent in lesser works.
The final scene, which I will not give away, leads us to question if prophecy belongs only in the hands of the sane and it also makes a strong statement about relational and familial trust. The strength of character had by Curtis, his wife Samantha and Hannah, their little girl, is reason enough to view this movie.
One theme that is evident in the movie is anxiety and it is anxiety in the existential sense of the word. And it is an anxiety that does not become less pronounced whether Curtis is mad or not. No matter what the reality presented by the film may be, existential crisis catches a family and nearly everyone in a small town in Ohio in its snare, though it does not stop there for LaGrange Ohio is everyplace and Curtis is everyman. Working in an industry (hydraulic fracturing) that everyone seems to think will spell salvation or doom, Curtis is either healing the economy or harming the planet, even as his worldly concerns involve only two other people. One of the great understated themes in this movie is how narrow our care may be even though, in our day to day living, we participate in those larger things. Curtis has large visions, that if real, will affect everyone, but his madness and compassion exists to the greatest benefit or detriment to his wife and child. Curtis engages in the existential anxiety all of us share, though the crisis to most involves only themselves and their very small societies.
That is what I most loved about this movie….the particular contains the universal. Curtis is the mythic hero in the most classic sense. Like many heroes, he is either enlightened or mad and it very possible that he is both. Just as Odysseus faced the storms of the Aegean that led many to their demise seeking only his return to Penelope, Curtis seeks deliverance only for Samantha and Hannah even if his story affects many others.
“Take Shelter” tells us that all of us have ultimate concerns even though we do not think on those things in such a broad way. We all have that place of anxiety and fear that make us heroic and mad. In spite of this, we cannot live out that anxiety in such a universal way. Our own relationship to the world’s madness has to first be about those we are called to care for.
Curtis may or may not be mad. His anxiety may or may not be the product of schizophrenia, but regardless, his anxiety is justified. He is the broken protector of two in a world that these times of economic destabilization and global terror tell us is certainly mad. No matter how often I consider this movie I always come back to it being a modern allegory.
The movie sets itself up like any of a number of post-apocalyptic accounts, but Curtis and his family behave in the ways people do when facing mental illness and financial collapse rather than the end of days or the undead. That is the film’s brilliance. Curtis may behave like a survivalist, but he is no strong man keeping the girl and hording guns while facing down malevolent creatures and leading his people through a world that has collapsed. Rather he is a man strong is some ways, but also in great need. He gets nowhere without his helpmate. Samantha is the film’s hero as much as her husband and she is proof of those words, “the man should not be alone” as she ultimately must believe in her husband as much as he is called to believe in her during his leap of faith toward the conclusion of the film.
Ultimately “Take Shelter is about a family that has to face down an unknown something together. What the something is remains undefined. It could be madness or “the storm the likes of which has not been seen” or any of those other things that create for us and our times an existential anxiety. In such times we are called to be heroic, but to also say “I need you.” At such times we come through the storm and the madness only with the courage to love and to be loved and with the willingness to watch over another as we are watched over. Curtis and Samantha are everyman and woman. With Hannah, they are every family. Their crisis is every crisis and like everyone on the good earth, their shelter is one another.