I was reluctant to revisit Take Shelter, and when I called dibs on this retrospective a few months ago, I didn’t know difficult it would be to write about. It’s a movie that hit me hard the first time, as Curtis (Michael Shannon) and I each have a close family member who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when we were young, and have dealt with the transformation of that person into someone new. In the decade since the film came out, I’ve followed its playbook more closely than I intended. I married a redhead, had a couple of kids, and…in the film’s most devastating prophetic turn so far, reached the same age as Curtis and watched my father die, back in August. In his grief over the man that raised him, Curtis succumbs to the onset of paranoid delusions, and fears that he is following in his mother’s footsteps. That is where Curtis’ experience diverges from my own, but I nonetheless find myself reflecting on mental illness from the standpoint of both the person going through it as well as their loved ones. Curtis doesn’t eschew his diagnosis—instead, he visits an honest-to-goodness public library to pick up a set of dusty old books about schizophrenia, all so he can deliver a convincing book report to the counselor at his town’s public health clinic: He meets two of the five diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia. And that is just such a sane-person thing to do, isn’t it? Hallucinations operate on a spectrum and are sometimes experienced by people with no other psychiatric symptoms (neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote an excellent book on the subject!). But delusions, by their very nature, are illusory and hard for the person experiencing them to detect. For that person, their dangers, their persecutors, their oncoming storm, are all very real, because the part of their brain that should tell them it isn’t real isn’t working properly. As in a dream, their mind is failing to test reality and think critically. Because it can’t do what it can’t do. And their terrifying new reality feels as ordinary to them as the real world does to us. What absolute hell it must be for the person experiencing it.
But for the people in your life, what do you become? A maddening mystery. Their reliable provider, their hard worker, their good and faithful friend—all those things they saw in you, and which you might’ve seen in yourself, suddenly feel askew, missing, possibly never to return. Who knows what they must think during that early onset? Have you just become an unreliable asshole all of a sudden? People have been known to do that, and pathologizing it is not always appropriate. I reflected upon the ordeal faced by Curtis and his family in this film through my own personal lens because it’s something I’ve watched play out in real life. And while my family’s own experience is not identical to what is portrayed here, I do feel comfortable saying that Curtis feels like a fully realized human being, and despite his financial woes, he is very fortunate to have the people he has in his life. His work friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) makes a Shea Whigham face as they sit in his car, avoiding their respective homes with post-work beers, and says simply, “You got a good life, Curtis. I’m serious—I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, that’s good. That guy’s doin’ somethin’ right.” And he is.
Dewart is an interesting case, because despite seeing Curtis every day at work (and even working under him as a manager), he feels aloof from his friend’s deteriorating mental state, and seems to think that Curtis is merely making a few bad choices. When Curtis enlists Dewart’s help borrowing a backhoe from their employer’s equipment yard to expand his backyard storm shelter, Dewart doesn’t say no, exactly. He just says, “You sure about that?”, and when Curtis confirms, he replies, “I just don’t wanna see you fuck up.” Curtis’ brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), mere seconds before offering to whoop his little brother’s ass like they’re kids again, takes a similarly glib posture, warning him about the cost of the storm shelter he’s building, “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.” This feels like an ordinary and expected reaction to men spotted making mistakes. Rich men can buy their way out of mistakes and spin their way out of crimes, but ordinary men are presumed to be in control of—and responsible for—their actions. People might ask, “Are you okay?” (Dewart does ask this in the very same scene), but they’re not necessarily prepared for a sincere no. Hence all the memes about how far men will go to avoid going to therapy. I don’t mind these memes, because the stats seem to bear them out. But Curtis does go to therapy—or at least to his GP. All it takes is a half-dozen apocalyptic tempest dreams, and one bout of bedwetting that he is obviously pretty upset about.
The dreams follow a similar cadence. As Curtis puts it, “They always start with a kind of storm. Like a real powerful storm. And then there’s always this dark, thick rain. Like fresh motor oil. And then the things, people, it just makes ’em crazy. They attack me. Sometimes they go after Hannah [his daughter]. First one I had, Red [the dog] nearly chewed through my arm.” He also sees massive flocks of black birds flying unnaturally and dive-bombing (or falling dead from the sky), and has the occasional daytime hallucination that may or may not be real—phantom claps of thunder or bolts of lightning in a clear sky. Perhaps more alarming is that he seems to recognize these things as not real, or coming from his mind, but he is still acting upon them in the real world. His dog attacks him in a dream, and he separates the dog from his daughter, and eventually puts him outside and gives him away to his brother. His friend Dewart attacks him with a pickaxe in a dream, and he has him transferred to a different work crew. His wife gives him a creepy stare while standing dripping wet in their kitchen and looking at a bread knife, and he recoils from the touch of her hand at the breakfast table. In Oliver Sacks’ book, Hallucinations, he writes,
“Any consuming passion or threat may lead to hallucinations in which an idea and an intense emotion are embedded. Especially common are hallucinations engendered by loss and grief…losing a parent, a spouse, or a child is losing a part of oneself; and bereavement causes a sudden hole in one’s life, a hole which—somehow—must be filled. This presents a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one, and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise.”
And what is Curtis’ reality? And what is missing in his life? His mother (Kathy Baker) is alive, but a shadow of her former self, institutionalized and separated from him most of the time. And the only functional parent he had known for 25 years is gone. And here he is, a man in his 30s, suddenly facing the rest of his life, a family to look after, and all the labors and dangers that now fall squarely upon his shoulders. And it’s easy to see how those dangers could grow and mutate until they become apocalyptic terrors, even if that isn’t how it goes for most people. I hadn’t read Sacks’ book when I saw the film a decade ago, but looking at Curtis’ hallucinations through this neurological lens helped me make a bit more sense of them this time around, even as a psychological layperson. We act in accordance with what our senses tell us about the real world, and how our minds interpret that information. In a person with schizophrenia…or a person having some other, less intractable psychological disorder, one or more of these processes has gone awry. And they may act in a way that is consistent with their revised worldview, even if they may still be able to articulate reasons why they shouldn’t be acting that way. When Samantha (Jessica Chastain) finally confronts Curtis about his behavior (in response to him asking whether she plans to leave him), she points out the moment she knew that this was more than just her husband making reckless financial decisions and not trusting or respecting her enough to explain why. Because these two are close enough that he wouldn’t recoil from her touch. This moment—played with equal parts love and ferocity by Chastain—only works if you believe this is a real family that has functioned properly in the past, and that is one thing this film and these actors sell exceptionally well. This is a blue-collar Rust Belt family with a patriarch who works in resource extraction, a stay-at-home wife and mother who runs the flea market booth on Saturday and goes to church on Sunday. They look after their daughter (who is deaf from birth and preparing for cochlear implant surgery as her parents learn ASL). They save for a nice beach vacation on Erie. They have worries, dreams, and a social life. And the overriding feeling going into Curtis’ crisis is that this family is real, and their life feels lived-in, which is a necessary condition for me to become invested in Curtis’ spiraling destruction of that family life. And it makes Samantha’s decision to take charge of the situation and safeguard Curtis’ mental health that much more cathartic.
This review feels incomplete without addressing the elephant in the room. But what is that elephant? What is that looming doom on the horizon that is stressing all of us out? The neo-fascist Republican Party feels like an easy choice. Or the mostly ignored threat of climate change. Or the COVID-19 pandemic, which so thoroughly revealed the lie of American exceptionalism and the fragility of our social contract that I’ve lost any sense of what patriotism and Christian morality means to those who pretend to espouse those virtues. And then there are the various dooms that I know to be nonsense, but which feel no less real for the people who believe in them: anti-vaxxers, QAnon freaks, and other people on the spectrum between victims and spreaders of apocalyptic disinformation. The centre cannot hold when our functionality as a society collapsed the moment we were asked to make even the most basic of sacrifices for our neighbors. And watching a movie about a generalized feeling of doom creates a temptation to overfit this film to the times we live in now. I’ve possibly done that above, ascribing Curtis’ psychological deterioration to the death of his father, because that’s something I find intensely relatable at this moment.
What say you, Take Shelter? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s doom? No. That’s a bit too easy. Apocalyptic tales have existed for as long as human storytelling. There’s always a storm coming, and not a one of you is prepared for it. Because…we’re all pretty terrible at taking the long view and preparing for things, because we live in a society that punishes anything but relentless, stress-fueled hustling to survive. But maybe, if we get to know our neighbors a bit, stockpile a few basics, and reassert our collective belief in this project we call civilization, it’ll all be okay in the end. I don’t suppose I’d still be writing about movies if I didn’t believe that on some level.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10
— Glenn Bristol