It is of little wonder that a hackneyed, wholly American film such as Take Shelter has struck a consistently favorable chord with critics and audiences alike. Films like this that pander to some variant of conspiracy and prophecy always have and probably always will as long as a vaguely perceivable threat to the “foundation” of America is forced into our collective psyche by political pundits and fearmongering campaigns encouraging doomsday hysteria and a cautionary approach towards the other. After all, there are plenty of “reasons” for us to be nervous in this day and age, our anxiety continually coined into the trite metaphoric slogan involving a storm of catastrophic change (the bigoted National Organization for Marriage is the most recent example).
Nowadays, that “storm” is reflected in election polls currently favoring a second term for our “subversive” and “foreign” president, homosexuality steadily gaining acceptance and “destroying” the sanctity of marriage in seven states, “self-deportation” becoming the new immigration reform that uses our barren and hopeless economy as its ruse, socialism somehow “ruining” our already failing health care industry, global warming as both fact and fiction, and for good measure, the Mayan calendar suggesting the end of it all this December in true clichéd apocalyptic fashion. (Where is Lars Von Trier when you need him?) In an equally clichéd manner, Take Shelter abruptly sells itself short in its final minutes by actualizing this metaphoric storm to prove one man’s sanity after a whole film was spent half-heartedly attempting to prove otherwise.
What is of wonder is the notable chasm between most established critics’ avoidance of truly examining the trick, tidy ending of Take Shelter and a lengthy blog discourse fostering a witless discussion over these final images. In general, reviews have gone so far as to call the film a masterpiece, detailing its (mostly) understated virtues in acting and special effects, how uniquely it captures a nation’s palpable fear of “losing something”, but yet erroneously glossing over its conclusion as “an open-ended question” to endow the psychological state of its protagonist with a voguish, artsy value.
While sharing in critics’ praise for Take Shelter as “culturally profound”, most commenting viewers, however, accept the film’s deliberate ending as resolute (minus a handful giving ludicrously complicated analyses attempting to prove it just couldn’t be that transparent), which, in my opinion, unwittingly calls out the film’s eye-roll inducing ending for what it is: a banal confirmation of a Midwestern male’s deranged apocalyptic prophecy. Whatever is so profound, understated, and even open for debate about a film that employs the old-hat tactic of corroborating America’s fear-based ethos, now this time into CGI images, is oversold and mires the potential to examine the real cultural issues and American psychology the film merely hints at.
Take Shelter is another spoke in the wheel of an ever-turning conservative reaction to changing times. The notion of containment offering security (the whole plot is one man’s toil to build a bomb shelter to protect his family) has its roots in post-World War II politics that pushed for a mother to remain at home, children to trust the establishment, and for both to agree father always knows what’s best. This film’s nuclear family is helmed by Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue-collar husband and father who has this characteristic, unquestionable sense of knowing what’s best for his family despite his ever-increasing psychotic visions of biblically severe weather and faceless zombie-like figures trying to intrude upon his home. These episodes begin to infiltrate his waking, working, and home life and his relationships quickly begin to deteriorate, causing enough of a ruckus so his small Midwestern community takes notice.
His somewhat meek, often overruled wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) wants him to seek psychiatric help considering his own mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, which he does momentarily at a public counseling center unable to commit one doctor to one patient. But after losing his grip to long hours updating his shelter that results in losing his job (along with the health insurance needed for their deaf daughter to get her cochlear implants), Curtis strays from the psychiatric help he needs and devotes his time to his shelter, continuing to pour all his family’s savings into it as he demands his wife understand and trust (while laughably proclaiming his prophetic insights to the town at a Lion’s Club dinner) he knows “there is a storm coming” that he must prepare for.
Throughout interviews, director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols has made it clear he never truly intended for his protagonist to become someone suffering from a mental illness. “I think from both (Shannon) of our perspectives, our approach was that this guy’s not crazy, he’s dealing with these things,” Nichols says. “That wasn’t quite enough, to have a movie about a guy having prophetic dreams and then going about his business to prepare for them, that just didn’t seem complex enough to me and I thought, ‘Well, the way to make that a little bit more complicated is to confuse the one tool he has to process those dreams, which is his mind.’ So, mental illness was a pretty logical development in the character.”
A logical development in the character, or a convenient development to “complicate” the plot? I do, in fact, agree with Nichols that any straightforward film about a guy having prophetic dreams is not interesting (which is why the Coen Brothers did it much more effectively using their peerless comedy in Barton Fink), but to tack on a transparent dimension of schizophrenia doesn’t elevate the film’s banal prophetic intent into anything more than just that. The only thing genuinely “schizophrenic” about Take Shelter is Nichols’ indecisive perspective and writing.
The film’s shallow investment in mental illness coupled with a full conviction in the mythical is its greatest misstep, a contradictory impulse necessitating the exact same kind of kick-in-the-pants plot twist of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Also like a Shyamalan movie, it needs to borrow heavily from the spectacle of the horror/thriller genre to hide a much more one-note take on themes of marriage, family, and anxiety, a very American cocktail that also has its roots in post-World War II culture aimed at bunkering down, preserving tradition, and fearing the unknown.
Flowing from the same river, Take Shelter could have been something as culturally astute as Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956), another film about the nuclear father figure’s descent into mental illness (whose own ending also rings false but due to a Production Code mandate), but instead contorts to an oddly political reinforcement of conservative values as pathetic as the sudden McCarthyism in My Son John (1952). While Nichols skillfully escalates the frequency of Curtis’ terrifying visions to introduce a sense of his deteriorating mind, he misses the opportunity to fully explore schizophrenia with even half the commitment and jarring effect that, say, Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1994) does.
Rather than focusing intently on the disastrous ramifications of America’s inadequate health care system and the bureaucratic hurdles that block its mental health professionals from truly serving the people they need to, Nichols only validates Curtis’ delusions. Some may argue that trio of apocalyptic tornadoes over ocean waters the whole family witnesses on their vacation is some sort of final act in his completely subjective paranoia, but the wide-eyed wonder of his daughter and the dutiful, submissively affirming nod from his wife say otherwise. One viewer’s interpretation went so far as to suggest the “intensity” of his schizophrenia resulted in his wife and daughter somehow “catching” the disorder as well. It’s this kind of ridiculous fabrication that fully reveals just how big of an elephant in the room must be ignored to elevate Take Shelter into an art film from just another dogmatic reaction to some storm that isn’t coming.