WARNING: Spoilers for “Take Shelter,” “A Serious Man,” and “Inception” all follow. Read at your own risk.
For 99% of its running time, Take Shelter is a harrowing tale of mental illness carried by a powerful performance from Michael Shannon. And then the last 1% had to go and sour the whole thing.
Here’s a terrifying thriller where the terror comes not from the usual stock of prowling killers, monsters, or aliens, but simply out of no longer being able to trust your own senses. What must it feel like to descend into delusions and hallucinations? It is of course impossible to ever truly know without experiencing it yourself, but Take Shelter feels like it comes pretty damn close by evoking what must be a sensation of gnawing, exhausting paranoia (and with far fewer gimmicks than the somewhat comparable A Beautiful Mind).
Curtis LaForche (Shannon) begins having nightmare visions of an approaching storm, and from the first shot the movie creates a sensation that something just isn’t right – dark clouds loom on the horizon as an ominous wind blows leaves off tree limbs. The unusual dread is confirmed when Curtis, viewing the storm with nearly paralyzing fear, begins feeling raindrops and sees they’re thick, yellowy globs, later describing them as being like “motor oil.”
And the nightmares get worse. Curtis’s trusted dog attacks and bites his arm, and he says he could continue to feel the pain the entire next day. Recurring visions of zombie-like figures threaten him and his family – his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, giving the best of her six performances in 2011), and his deaf daughter Hannah. And in every dream there’s the looming storm, threatening to wash the world away.
What’s remarkable about the movie is that Curtis is self-aware enough to question the source of these visions; as much as he feels like he’s getting true premonitions of the coming apocalypse, he also knows mental illness runs in his family. And it’s here where Take Shelter is so effective as an examination of what mental illness can do to a person and those they love — made all the worse by the lack of adequate treatment available to a working-class family, especially in rural areas like those in Ohio where the film takes place.
Curtis’s doctor recommends he visit a psychiatrist in Columbus, but it’s just too far – and would cost too much gas money. He settles on seeing a local mental health counselor, who with sympathy explains she can only talk to him but can’t prescribe any of the medications he would likely need. And all the while the hallucinations get worse, and his obsession to build-up the backyard storm shelter lead him to take out a risky home improvement loan and secretly borrow equipment from his construction job. There’s a heartbreaking scene when Curtis’s boss discovers what he did and is forced to fire him, meaning he’ll lose the health insurance he needs not only to get his own treatment, but to also pay for the cochlear implant his daughter had just been approved for. Here is a man who needs serious help, but lives in a society that only puts up one hurdle after another to impede him from getting it (including the social stigma placed on mental illness that discourages those who need help from seeking it as soon as possible to begin with).
And then there’s the ending. After a powerful and moving climax where Samantha gently helps Curtis confront his demons and see, at last (or so it seems), that they’re not real, she finally convinces him to see the psychiatrist in Columbus, who recommends he start his treatment by taking some time away from home. Simple enough – they were planning on taking a vacation in Myrtle Beach anyway, Samantha explains. And as Curtis is playing with his daughter on the beach and all seems well…Hannah suddenly sees a looming storm. Samantha, finally, sees it too – a storm of apocalyptic scope and with rain like yellowy motor oil. Cut to black, as ear-splitting thunder cracks.
And so what are we left with? That Curtis’s visions weren’t simple nightmares, after all? Not delusions and hallucinations but true premonitions of The End? All that stuff about the tragedy of mental illness – thrown out the window, because he wasn’t ill after all? Certainly seems that way, and with a stroke writer/director Jeff Nichols (whose debut Shotgun Stories is unseen by me, although I now aim to correct that) turns one last twist of the screw and in the process undermines the power and empathy that the rest of his film worked so hard to earn.
There’s something to be said for the “Ambiguous Ending,” when it’s done well and at the end of the right movie. Just in terms of what’s on the screen, the last scene in Take Shelter will probably bring to mind the last shot of A Serious Man – another ambiguous ending with a looming storm. The difference, though, is all in the connotations – what do the storms stand for in their respective films? To begin with, the storm in A Serious Man isn’t the coming apocalypse, but the storm that’s coming for all of us, in each of our lives. Recall that the tornado comes just moments after Larry Gopnik gets a call from his doctor with an ominous tone hinting at bad news about his chest x-rays. The tornado at the end wasn’t so much a “plot twist,” then, but a final affirmation of the film’s worldview: that the universe has no care for our plans, and while we’re absorbed in the ups and downs of day-to-day life there’s a bad x-ray or tornado (or car accident or stray bullet) that might have our names on it, completely outside of our control. It works, because it symbolizes everything the movie stands for.
That’s why I think a better comparison for Take Shelter is Inception. In tone, style, and story, the movies couldn’t be more different. But their one similarity is that they both plunge the audience into a “maybe, maybe not” confusion: Take Shelter in that, like Curtis, we’re not entirely sure at first whether his dreams are hallucinations or premonitions; and Inception in that, like Cobb, we’re not always sure when he’s inside a dream or when he’s actually awake. And both films can’t help but give the audience one final jerk before the credits roll.
But again, what does the final shot in Inception leave us with, besides an artificially built question? Nothing that the movie shows, as far as I understood what happened and the rules that governed it all, suggested that Cobb was still inside a dream in the final scene. The only thing that makes us question it is the final shot of the spinning top itself. So why does the shot even exist? Simple: To make us question it. That’s what I mean when I say “artificial,” because the result is something of a ridiculously elaborate tautology: Cobb may or may not be dreaming because the shot shows he may or may not be dreaming. If that’s the only evidence we have to base this on, then what does any of it matter either way?
Take Shelter is, admittedly, a little trickier – in terms of plot, there technically is nothing in the movie that ever definitively suggests Curtis’s dreams aren’t, after all, true premonitions, so the final scene is not exactly a cheat in the same way that it was in Inception. And yet the effect is more or less the same, because it’s a problem of narrative focus. The movie is not ultimately so much about the “maybe, maybe not” puzzle of Curtis’s visions, but of how those visions affect him and his family. And in showing those affects, it spends so much time treating Curtis’s dreams as if they’re the tragic result of mental illness that to suddenly suggest differently in the very last minutes of the film ends up feeling like a cheat anyway.
Maybe an apocalyptic storm truly is coming, or maybe it’s just one more dream. But at that point, after everything we’ve just seen, what does it get us to even raise the question again, other than to dilute the drama that was only meaningful before the final scene pulled the rug out from under us?