Take Shelter Dir. Jeff Nichols

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2011]

Styles: Suspense
Others: Shutter Island; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

It’s a standard couples’ counseling bromide, but the fundamental component of any lasting relationship is trust. Among director Jeff Nichols’ aims in Take Shelter is a test of one person’s trust in another, as Samantha LaForche (Jessica Chastain, proving she deserves to be this ubiquitous) follows her husband Curtis (Michael Shannon, almost channeling his character from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) into what is either a coming apocalypse or an inchoate madness — an apocalypse designed for families. Curtis’ behavior starts to change after he begins dreaming of natural disasters and attacks from strange figures. These nightmares grow in intensity, and it is always his home or his family that this unnamed malevolence targets. Whether these dreams are prophetic or one mind’s attempt to gaslight itself is central to the film’s argument.

Nichols prolongs the ambiguity of Curtis’ visions as much as he can. At first, it seems like he might be playing games, inflating tension artificially, but it later becomes clear that the LaForches’ confusion might be a product of Nichols’ own ambivalence. Curtis sees visions of a storm that will literally annihilate the land, but can’t escape the knowledge that his own mother began to slowly lose herself to schizophrenia at exactly his age in the film. Nichols has to decide whether it’s worse for Curtis to be wrong, and for his family to lose him, or for him to be right and lose the world altogether, though his family might survive.

Curtis spends the film’s first act trying to hide the changes he feels in himself, and there’s an agonizing few minutes when you think he might try to keep this ruse up for the whole film. Eventually, though, Nichols lets the tension slip; as Curtis says, he knows what he comes from. This is where Samantha becomes a real character. Her love for her husband, and her understanding of his insistence on never leaving his family, refuses to bow to growing pressure from their friends and family. When Curtis begins expanding the family’s underground storm shelter, his panic becomes public and people start to talk. Curtis loses his friends and his job; the loss of medical insurance robs his daughter, who is deaf, of an opportunity to get cochlear implants. Samantha forces herself to bend to Curtis’ broken logic — the possibility that he has betrayed his family in order to protect it.

Nichols deftly introduces elements of contemporary anxiety into Take Shelter, both directly and symbolically. He’s described the film as the product of starting a family at a time of overwhelming fear for the planet and for civilization. In the film, the imagined catastrophes consist of attacks from both nature and individuals. The individuals begin vaguely, first with the family dog, then faceless figures, until they become those who are closest to Curtis. Watching his fear grow, and how he tries to reason himself out of his nightmares, provides Shannon an opportunity to put his grimace and furrowed brow to full effect. When he does finally let the war in his head out, it’s one of the most intense, astonishing performances this year’s films have yet offered.

How we cope with anxiety and fear tells us a lot about how well we can survive this particular historical moment. It’s quickly apparent that Curtis needs help, and how he approaches psychiatry lets Nichols play with current attitudes to medication and counseling. If Curtis is to lose his mind, then how he and his family begin their relationship with psychiatry is important. Watching Curtis navigate his skepticism of therapy and his fear of what he might do allows us to see another corner of Nichols’ thesis: that though help exists, no one can single-handedly shepherd us through our terror or our doubt.

Curtis promised himself early in life that he would never leave his family, and his inability let himself be unequal to this obligation is the central paradox of Take Shelter. Samantha puts her trust in him, supporting and carrying him as he seems doomed to drag their family into ruin. They each prove — Samantha with her stoicism, Curtis with his determination — that the bond that inhabits true families is immutable, come hell or high water.

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