Fear the storm: “Take Shelter”

November 27, 2011

We live in fear. We fear that forces we cannot see or fully understand will rob us of the security we have promised our loved ones.  Or at least that’s my take from what I’ve seen of the news coming out of the U.S. The economy has cratered, and if Adam Smith’s invisible hand has taught us anything over the past half-decade it is that anyone is expendable. Your education or occupation is no object. And that is the pounding, horrible core of Take Shelter, a tremendously effective indie movie that finds the raw nerve of post-millennial angst and never lets up.

Take Shelter follows the character of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, in the latest of a long line of incredible performances). Curtis is the ideal American everyman. He works in heavy construction.  He can build things. Set him loose in a Home Depot, and he can buy the essential materials and make them into a shelter. His job affords him a decent medical plan that even provides for his deaf daughter’s cochlear implants. Curtis lives a modest, pleasant life with his daughter and wife (Jessica Chastain). Everything should be hunky-dorey.

But Curtis is plagued by dreams of some sort of terrible coming. He sees in his mind a storm that rains brown, viscous liquid—like fresh motor oil—birds take flight and form undulating masses like ink-blots, and a wave of madness that turns the people around him into violent wraiths.  These dreams are intense enough to leave Curtis feeling physical symptoms—the bite of family dog is one potent example. Pretty soon, almost in spite of himself, Curtis begins preparing for this oncoming storm.

But there is another angle—another oncoming storm if you will. Curtis’ mother (Kathy Bates) succumbed to schizophrenia when he was a child, and she was about the same age his now. The rational, clear-headed Curtis understands that there is a good chance he has inherited his mother’s disease, but he still finds himself torn between his rational assessment and his brute instinct to protect his family. Curtis lives in rural Ohio, where treatment for his mental disease is basically non-existent, and yet open enough to leave a man terribly exposed to something unimaginable.

The paradox that Curtis finds himself confronting is his efforts to keep his family safe from the oncoming apocalypse—building a storm shelter out of an abandoned cellar, burying a shipping container, running electricity and plumbing to it, stocking it with food and water and gas masks—all push his closer to financial ruin. He risks his job, his financial solvency, and the medical insurance he needs for his daughter’s operation, all the while driving away his friends and family.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has done a great job in crafting a steady, yet compelling story that can be interpreted in a variety of ways (particularly the frustrating, satisfying ending). What is unmistakable is the way in which he peels back rural America, and exposes the frailty of upper blue collar life. There isn’t a hint of condescension or stereotyping in the world Nichols has created. He gets everything right, down to details like the library book Curtis uses to self-diagnose his illness (yellowed and dogeared, it was probably new in the early ‘80s), to the pitch-perfect Lion’s Club dinner at the local Legion Hall.

Take Shelter has its flaws, but they never compromise the story. Chastain is good, but her character seems more like a storyline signpost than an actual person (if the wife fed up with him yet? Yes? Then his behavior has escalated too far…), and I’m a tad perplexed why Curtis looks up his diagnosis in a library and not on the Internet. Hell, even if he used the library’s Internet connection it would have been more believable. Oh, and the moment we hear a character tell Chastain how lucky they are that Curtis’s insurance will cover their daughter’s operation…well, you know where that’s going).

Still, Take Shelter is a powerful piece of allegory about what safety and security have come to mean in this day and age. This movie will be (or should be) taught as a time-capsule of the fear that America lived with for much of the second decade of the new millennium.

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