Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"'Twill be a storm": Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

“This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there.”  (King Lear 3.4.12-14)

There’s something in the air this year.  Or maybe something, as Lars von Trier would have it in his most recent film, Melancholia, hurtling towards our planet, bent on destruction.  Or maybe something, as Jeff Nichols would have it in Take Shelter, in the rain, sickly yellowish and oily.  Or maybe it’s not anything external at all, neither air nor destructive orb nor sickly rain - but rather, something more like Lear’s tempest in mind.  

Indeed, Melancholia, Take Shelter, and King Lear each use external, literal storms as analogs for mental disruption and turmoil, and, on a deeper level, for states of existential crisis.  

If there is "nothing new under the sun,” perhaps I should not be surprised that the film I saw last night and the one I saw last week, Take Shelter and Melancholia respectively, remind me of Shakespeare’s great tragic play of the early 17th century with its doubling of chaos within and chaos without.  But other critically well-received films this year, while they do not have the same doubling, also evidence a fear and unease, a mood that surely says something about the way we are all feeling about the state of things in our world: Margin Call with panic and corruption in the financial world; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with its return to the paranoia of the Cold War days; Drive with its lonely, violent anti-hero; Contagion with its fear of sudden, uncontrollable disease and death; The Ides of March with its corruption of the political system; Meek’s Cutoff with its dislocation of space and traditional structures; and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes with the downfall of the human race.   Coincidence?  Maybe.  Maybe every year has this sort of crop of gloomy films, and I’ve noticed it only now because I happened to watch Melancholia and Take Shelter back to back.  

Whatever the case, I left the cinema last night after seeing Take Shelter, and the same oppressive spirit of a few days ago, relative to Melancholia, weighed upon me again.  The driving rain on my windshield seemed ominous; I did not have the sense I usually have when I drive in my rainy home state, that sense of triumphant cozy comfort within, barring all damp wet from without.   No, this time, my car didn’t seem such a happy, peaceful shelter.  Like Take Shelter’s main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), I needed something more than the ordinary to keep out the storm.  While Curtis suffers from what seems to be exclusively personal hallucinations, paranoia, and nightmares - mental disorders born of his genes more than anything else - I still could not help but see myself and feel my own fears in Curtis.

We are introduced to Curtis’s nightmares in the very opening scenes of the film; in fact, we are thrust, without knowing our location at first, directly into one of his nightmares, a storm.  His nightmares and his hallucinations contain similar elements throughout the film: a storm builds or rages; the sky and clouds and even the birds shift into phantasmagoric shapes; rain pours down as an oily substance; Curtis must save his vulnerable, deaf daughter from the storm or from shadowy figures who come to snatch her; people he trusts behave strangely, threateningly; he must exert great physical effort to withstand the assaults or to act as savior in the midst of the assaults.  

Throughout the film, from scene to scene, we are often not quite sure of what we are seeing, from moment to moment - are we in one of Curtis’s nightmares?  Is he awake but hallucinating?  And he himself suffers from the same disorientation; he doesn’t know how to distinguish between his horrific visions and the reality.  At least twice during the film, as he gazes at the sky, he mutters, “Is anyone seeing this?”  And we’re not ever quite sure.  Some of his visions or nightmares seem to be, clearly, nightmares; we understand at some point, “Ah, this one is just another nightmare.”  But we are kept, nonetheless, in a state of disorienting unease.  In the beginning of the film, a real, but mild rain storm, fills the sky, and we see Curtis’s wife Samantha (the marvelous Jessica Chastain) teach their daughter the sign for “storm” as they gaze out the rain-glazed window together.  Real things without are linked almost indistinguishably to the disorder within Curtis’s mind.  

As the film goes on and Curtis continues to struggle - his fears about his sanity increasing, his behavior increasingly bizarre and unaccountable to his family - we begin to see, at least, we think we begin to see, the real things, the real fears that have triggered Curtis’s nightmares, and it is in understanding and sympathizing with these fears that Curtis takes shape, not as someone who is merely an individual suffering from some mental disease (though it may be that, too), but as someone who represents the responses to more universal fears.  

In spite of the intensity of some of Curtis’s nightmares, the film builds our understanding of Curtis’s world and his fears very slowly, with small clues.  It is a film unafraid of demanding patience and unafraid of lingering shots, and Curtis is a man of few words, whose silence we often long to break, especially given the turmoil that we know lies beneath.  We come to understand his daughter’s deafness and isolation, and we see his desire to protect her; as he sits by her bed at night, we feel his fear for her.  We come to see a possible disunion between Curtis and Samantha’s family, when Samatha’s father comments, accusingly, over a Sunday afternoon meal, “We didn’t see you in church again this morning, Curtis.”  We come to understand something of the precarious economic situation, both of the family and of the community.  Samantha sews pillows and other handmade items and sells them each Saturday, not, we sense, because she loves to sew, but because their family needs the extra money; we see her carefully stowing the money away in a tin, notably, not depositing the money at the bank.  We come to understand that Curtis fears repeating the sins of his parents, particularly his mother's; he fears for his daughter a repetition of his own childhood, and he fears what he has inherited.  

All of these fears while utterly believable and unique in terms of this film and in terms of this character, are also uneasily universal, and they seem particularly resonant with the general unrest of our times, the unemployment and economic depression, the obsession with parenting and fears about raising our children just perfectly, the fears that we’ve inherited political and economic structures from those that have gone before us that will collapse in disarray.  

And so when Curtis begins to give in to his nightmares, acting according to those visions as truths - when he takes out a risky loan, when jeopardizes his job, when he begins spending money on things that are not conceivably practical, when his behavior seems to put a hope for his daughter’s healing at risk - the tension is almost unbearable.  His giving into his visions seem only to bring his fears to life more quickly, and we long for him to stop, to just be reasonable, to, at the very least, speak openly to someone about those fears – and so, we hope, to exorcise them.  You are only creating more quickly, we want to say, what it is that you fear most.  

Curtis understands the dangerous implications of his hallucinatory visions and dreams; he understands that they can be only irrational things, but he is still compelled by those visions, unable to resist them, and even while we fear what he may do – where will his visions lead? what will they tell him next? – we also understand that he is driven by a desire to protect his family and that all of his actions, though spurred by his fearful visions, are motivated by his love for his wife and daughter.  And so we look on in horror and sympathy, waiting for a crisis. 

When the crisis comes, it is not quite what we expect, and thus, I was held, riveted, unable to predict the outcome.  At the crux of the crisis is Curtis and his little family; his visions, his mental disorder, as we expect, stand between him and any continuing and healthy relationship with them.  In one particular moment, we can almost feel the agony of his mind as he looks at Samantha, not daring to do as she asks, because her request goes against every fiber of his desire, against the conviction that he must protect her and their daughter.  He feels sure he is right; he knows it – but Samantha cannot follow him in his conviction.  The dilemma brings him to such a peak of intensity that we see him visibly, slightly shaking, bringing the whole of Michael Shannon’s beautifully understated and spellbinding performance to the height of its forcibly suppressed energy.

Just how the crisis resolves - or explodes - I cannot say without spoiling the ending.  But even without explicitly discussing the ending, I might still ask, what is this film?  What is it about?  At the halfway point, I wondered – is this to be a crushingly convincing portrait of a mind losing its bearings?  That alone, because of the performances and carefully constructed story, would be enough.  But even at the halfway point, I could not shake the resonances of Curtis’s fears relative to myself and our times.  The shadowy figures of Curtis’s dreams reminded me of zombies, those living-dead, the living-flesh eating monsters of the horror genre which are not intended to produce merely feelings of horror but to reflect something about the disorder of the modern world we live in.   And I do believe Take Shelter is something akin to the best of the horror genre, which immerses us in a fantasy world and tells us something about our real world, about our deepest fears.

King Lear’s Fool – standing in a long line of truth tellers who live on the fringe and can thus see more clearly than anyone else – says of the storm, the setting of Lear’s downfall, “This cold night will turn us all fools and madmen” (3.4.77-8).  And when we understand the play, we understand that the madman is not really the fool; it is not he who is the one out of touch.  We understand that it is only through devastating madness that Lear begins to see the truth about himself and about the world.

In Melancholia Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the anti-social depressive, becomes the visionary and the artist, the one in whom the ordinary, rational folk might take shelter and find comfort when everything around collapses.  In Take Shelter, Curtis is the madman, the one alienates himself by his mental state and his behavior from the normal society around him.  Whether, by the end, Curtis is still just a frightening madman or a kind of Shakespearean wise fool, I think only each viewer can decide.  Curtis’s state, his visions, will speak truthfully to you about our world or they will seem only like foolishness.

For my part, in considering this film, the last lines of King Lear - when the king is dead, Cordelia is dead, and all is brokenness – resonate both clearly and truthfully, reflecting the fearful spirit of our times:

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.” (5.3.329-33)


  1. I think there's definitely something to thinking about the film in terms of Shakespeare, as it seems like Nichols does directly address some traditionally tragic constructs in both the film's narrative and tone. And, like you say, the storm as allegory is used in Shakespeare, has been made manifest in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and is present here again. I wonder why that image is so striking in a literary sense, and why it's generally so effective. I suppose it's because, at the core, all personal conflicts can be said to mirror a storm. Hmm, I'll have to think it over.

    The part that struck me was the comparison to horror films though, as that did not initially jump out to me but it certainly seems to fit in line with (what little) I know about how zombie films operate. Certainly seems in line with a lot of the economic crisis readings that some people seem to be taking away from the film, no?

    Excellent thoughts on the film!

  2. I'm glad you think the Shakespeare angle works, and yes, somehow the storm without/storm within metaphor is something I always find so compelling. Emily Bronte is another who uses weather and landscape brilliantly to mirror something in the mood and conflict of the her key characters.

    I had no thought about horror films when I went into Take Shelter, but the moment those mindless sort of figures appeared, as a part of Curtis's dreams, I felt that there might be some parallels to be made. I think the film works best when viewed in the same way that you might view a really good horror film, that is, that the film is really about something else, some underlying fear. I might even like to call this film a sort of fable. It works less well, I think, if we consider it strictly realistically. Of course, it has realistic elements - one absolutely believes these characters - but something about the "everytown" and "anytime" nature of it all made me feel that there was more beneath the surface.

    When we consider the ending from those angles, namely, when we consider it as we might a horror film or as we might a fable, the arguments about whether or not the thing at the end is real seem not to matter as much. Within the confines of the film's setting, I believe either interpretation works; what's important is that the fable aspect, the thing the film's about, remains intact either way.

    And yeah, having finally caught up with Inside Job recently, the deep problems in our economic structure were fresh in my mind as I watched, and were on the minds of other viewers, too, I guess, though I think the film can be about all kinds of fears, in addition to the economic one, that plague us today.

    Thanks, for reading, Rich. Love getting your feedback.

  3. Fine, torture me. Take Shelter warrants a Shakespearean reading? And I only get to see the film and thus, to read your review in March? March? Now, truly, begins the winter of my discontent about German release dates ;-)

  4. I was thinking of you while I was writing, Sonja! And now I can't wait for March, too; you'll be able to tell me if I'm completely off base. (Though, of course, that bard of the human experience is relevant to everything, isn't he? :) )

  5. i've been comparing melancholia to lear for a week now. the comparison, in my opinion, is valid. yes about the mad/wise comparison between the two. but nothing, and i'm saying nothing, brings melancholia and lear together better than cordelia uttering 'nothing' to lear. and edmund uttering 'nothing' to gloucester. and justine uttering 'nothing' to jack (which tim calls a good tag line: 'nothing'). 'everything' is in the tag line printed on the movie's promo-posters. and the nothing in lear is actually everything, argues morris weitz, in his article "the coinage of man: 'king lear and camus's l'étranger." embrace nothing and be open to everything. or something. :) good stuff to get lost in.

  6. Oh, excellent! Thanks, Craig, for this - hadn't thought of the Lear parallels in Melancholia, and I'll definitely try to look up the Weitz article - looks really interesting. Melancholia left me, initially, feeling nothing - but resonances of that nothing grew into something that feels like everything, a sort of resounding, echoing boom that I can't quite escape.

  7. Weitz, Morris. "The Coinage of Man: 'King Lear' and Camus's 'L'Étranger.'" _The Modern Language Review_ 66.1 (1971): 31-39

    i found it on jstor