Take Shelter

The heartbreak of mental illness
Jeff Nichols
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whingam
The Setup: 
Guy is having strange apocalyptic visions. Is he nuts?

This got a rave in the New York Times, which described it as somewhat of an arty suspense movie with elements of horror about a man who is having menacing visions, and who may or may not become a danger to his wife and daughter. Sounded right up my alley! Especially since I am a huge enthusiast of alarming global warming articles, and most of the visions here are of a massive, apocalyptic storm. Well, it turns out to be a well-directed, well-acted, beautifully-modulated movie that just happens to be a total fucking waste of time.

We open with Michael Shannon, the go-to guy for anguished mental illness, as Curtis, staring at a huge storm in the distance. The water is thick and brown, like motor oil. Then he wakes, takes a shower, has breakfast with his wife, Jessica You-Will-Not-Escape-Me Chastain as Sam, and goes outside--where it is clear and sunny. We are introduced to his friend at the construction site, and other realities of their semi-rural Ohio existence. Then he has another dream of a bad storm, in which his dog attacks him. The next day, while driving, he has a vision of menacing people who abduct his daughter. He makes a pen out back and puts his dog, formerly an inside dog, out there. The dog then drops entirely out of the movie--not so much a single bark from our furry friend who has suddenly been exiled, and as far as we can tell no member of the family goes to visit him--until he suddenly reappears for a moment later on.

Curtis doesn't tell his wife about any of this, although she is quite concerned. He opens up a storm shelter in the backyard, and soon gets the idea to expand it. He checks a book out of the library, Understanding Mental Illness, which I thought was a bit self-aware for someone who is going crazy, but it turns out his mother was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia in her thirties. Guess who is 35 now?

Curtis takes a dangerous loan out for money to build out his storm shelter, despite the fact that they are living fairly close to the edge as it is, and his daughter is going to need money for her ear operation that might help her hear. He borrows heavy machinery from the construction company to build out his shelter, asking his friend for help, then abruptly asks for his friend to be transferred off his shift because he had a dream he might be dangerous. He takes eight sleeping pills without telling his wife, then wakes up with a seizure. He finally tells her about the dreams he's been having, and his fears that he's cracking up like his mother, but says he "promised himself he would never leave this house."

The work friend who he transferred away starts blabbing all over town, and soon women are asking Sam about her husband and Curtis' brother stops by to see how he's doing. The movie is well-written enough so that you don't have to be told this guy is Curtis' brother, you piece that together, as well as a good amount of the parameters of their relationship. Then Curtis is fired from his job for borrowing the equipment. Again, it's nice that the movie just lets us put together the bad loan Curtis just took out, and the fact that his daughter's ear operation is now becoming unrealistic. Sam insists that they attend the town's Saturated Fat festival, because she needs a touch of normalcy. She doesn't get her wish, however, as Curtis is confronted by the friend he transferred away, and ends up making a massive scene in front of the whole town.

Soon Curtis is having a dream in which he sees Sam herself as a threat. He has a dream that there's a huge storm, then wakes to find that there IS a huge storm. They go out to the storm shelter, where Curtis makes his whole family don gas masks. In the morning, Sam has to force Curtis, who still believes the storm is going on, to open the door, saying "This is what you have to do to stay with us." He finally does and--no storm. So is he healed? I wouldn't count on it.

They finally go to the psychiatrist Curtis has been resisting. He tells them that they should take the beach vacation they had planned on, but after that Curtis will have to leave the family and get serious treatment. They are at the beach when the daughter sees a storm, the mega apocalyptic storm Curtis had predicted, and soon we see that Sam sees it as well, and feels the oily rain. The end!

So for about ten minutes you might be befuddled, and find the ending ambiguous. Then you put together that the reality has set in that Curtis will have to leave the family, and can't overcome his visions in order to "stay with them." So the solution the family has come to is that the wife and daughter will join HIM in his psychosis, so that they can remain together.

The movie put me in a foul mood. You are suckered in with the promise that it'll be a spooky exploration of the line between reality and fantasy and that Curtis might become a danger to his family, which would give it a The Shining-like excitement. Gradually you start to realize that this is just an extremely well-done Lifetime Original Movie about the tragedy of mental illness. It studiously and steadily becomes LESS than one had hoped it would be. What was sold as an exercise in ambiguity turned out to be about as ambiguous as my big toe, and when my friend and I figured out the "ambiguous" ending in less than ten minutes, I had absolutely no use for this shit anymore.

After watching I found an interview with the director online with him explaining his intent in making the film. He says he wanted to talk about the anxieties of daily modern life and how they creep into our personal relationships. If that's true, he has entirely failed, because THIS movie is about one guy, who is crazy. The end. If you want a movie that does talk about the anxieties of modern life, and successfully maintains the ambiguity this one is supposed to have had, there is Safe, with Julianne Moore. Then it occurred to me that the movie the director wanted to make, and is in a way this exact same movie--but successful--is The Last Wave, of 34 years ago. It also has a guy who is having apocalyptic visions of a massive environmental catastrophe, maintains the ambiguity over whether he is just crazy or it's really happening, and ends with the catastrophe probably [but maybe not?] being realized.

Don't get me wrong, this is well-written and wonderfully acted. It just amounts to considerably less than the sum of its parts, and as such, should have at least had the courtesy to be 30 minutes shorter. It's one of those where you spend more time afterward thinking about which scenes could have been cut than anything about the movie. This would be a great film for high school psychology classes when they want to take a break from the books for a while, otherwise I don't see a lot of reason anyone should put themselves through it. It's one of those contemporary movies that has everything, except a reason to exist.

Should you watch it: 

If your teacher brings this into your high school psychology class. Otherwise, you should watch The Last Wave.