It is said of those undergoing psychiatric care that the patient experiences a cruel condition in which nobody will believe what the patient says, and at the same time, people will begin to believe things about the patient that are not true. That being the case, it becomes easier to see why someone who is suffering from certain kinds of mental illness might resist undergoing certain kinds of treatment for it. After all, ours is a society that has yet to fully treat mental illness with the unique mixture of seriousness and sensitivity that it calls for. That we still see mental illness as a kind of blanket form of sinister unpredictability simply underscores how much more heavy lifting we all need to do to approach this health issue as we would so many others. But until then, we see again and again how mental illness is an easy narrative vehicle to scare the audience with the specter of abnormal behaviors and perceptions. But the truth is that however scary we make mental illness out to be (and often do so irresponsibly), we continue to miss a major point about mental health. However scary as we may think it is to witness mental illness in action, it can be far, far more frightening to be the person who is suffering from it. And for a compelling cinematic exploration of that truth, look no further than Take Shelter.
Curtis LaForche is a construction worker in small-town Ohio who appears to have a pretty good life. He lives in a close-knit community, has a loving wife, Samantha, and a darling daughter, Hannah. Life isn’t without its challenges, though. Hannah is deaf and awaits upcoming cochlear implant surgery. Curtis doesn’t make a whole lot of money, either, since construction income is never that certain. And lately, he has begun seeing signs of an impending apocalypse. Weird rainfall that lands like thick motor oil. Strange murmurations of black birds that flock past him as if on a strafing run. Visions of ominous cloud banks seemingly assembling to destroy the town itself. To protect his family, Curtis begins obsessively building an elaborate storm shelter in his backyard that he can hardly afford in more ways than one. He puts himself into serious debt to finance the project. He neglects his family to work on the shelter’s construction. He alienates almost everyone he knows over his concerns over an approaching doom he can neither define nor explain. And he begins skipping work and commandeering construction equipment for personal use. It all combines to a life-wrecking situation that puts Curtis and Samantha at their breaking point. He is at the age when his mother developed paranoid schizophrenia, and while Hannah implores Curtis to get help, he isn’t about to be told by strangers to disbelieve something he not only knows to be true, but fears will kill his family, his friends, and anybody in his life. A storm is coming for Curtis LaForche. The question is, in what form will it take when it finally arrives?
This movie is billed as a psychological thriller, but this is really more of a horror movie, however subtle and slow-burning as it may be. Most of the show is a gradual character study of Curtis, a guy we realize is a good man who loves his family, but is simultaneously wrestling with knowledge that cannot be believed, and a history that discredits his worst fears. To some degree, Curtis acknowledges that maybe his fears are all in his head. But his more immediate self, that part of him that must answer the question of what will he do to protect his family…that part is the one calling the shots here. And that relegates Curtis into a corner from which there is no easy escape. His entire life becomes a form of extreme anxiety, because either he is right and the whole town is about to be wiped off the face of the map, or he is wrong, and he requires the kind of psychiatric care that will separate him from his family (perhaps forever). Faced with these kinds of outcomes, one can begin to see why, if this were a set of choices one could easily and objectively pick between, Curtis might choose to keep building his shelter.
This movie truly rests on an amazing performance by Michael Shannon, an actor who specializes in portraying people at the outer limits of their mental, physical, or emotional endurance. Here, his turn as Curtis makes us both frightened of and for him at the same time. A scene in the movie’s third act, when Curtis’s behavior has wrought collateral damage from which there is no easy recovery, contains a scene of acute discomfort. At what is supposed to be nice evening out at the local Lion’s Club, Curtis finally reveals to his fellow townspeople what he knows. For the first time we see the faintest glimmer of what it feels like to be inside of Curtis’s head, and it is a place no person would ever willingly stay for long.
The moment of truth comes during the movie’s ambiguous epilogue, which doubles down on the mystery the viewers cannot really solve: is Curtis a prophet or is he psychotic? Or could he be both? The final moments of Take Shelter won’t give us a clear answer, instead pushing the workload back on the viewer to decide for themselves what fate truly lies in store for the LaForche family. We cannot be sure if what we are seeing is from Curtis’ viewpoint, and thus unreliable, or from his family’s and thus true. But we do know one thing. What Hannah signs to her father most definitely forecasts some kind of future flies ahead for the entire family, and it isn’t good. There are some storms, you must face and somehow try to survive. There are some storms from which running only ensures that you die tired.