Take Shelter: Best Film Portrayal of Anxiety
I've been having these dreams, and they always start with some sort of storm. --Curtis Laforche in Take Shelter
If you see one movie before the end of the year, you have to see Take Shelter, an independent film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It has been described as the best drama of the year so far and was also proclaimed the winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I saw this film at an independent theater on the weekend and I was blown away. I fully agree with movie critic Clem Bastow of The Vine who described this movie as a portrait of anxiety: “Those who've never understood [anxiety] could do to see Take Shelter as a total immersion virtual reality experience.” It is difficult to pinpoint all the themes explored in this movie. They include: Anxiety, fear, schizophrenia, the frustration of seeking mental health treatment, and the strength of family to pull through these challenges.
Special Note: Our Christina Bruni, Community Leader and head writer for SchizophreniaConnection was able to interview the writer and director of Take Shelter. This is a not to be missed interview as this film is likely to gain universal acclaim.
The story takes place in a small town in Ohio where Curtis LaForche played by Michael Shannon lives with his family including wife (Jessica Chastain as Samantha) and daughter (Tova Stewart as Hannah). Curtis works at a construction job and leads a simple but happy life. In a poignant scene one of Curtis’s friends tells him, “You got a good life.” This statement sets the tone for Curtis’s growing fear and anxiety that his good life could be taken away. But by what? Dreams supply the source of disaster-a terrible storm with motor-oil rain and multiple tornadoes. Are the dreams merely symbols for modern day anxieties or are they prophetic?
As the movie progresses the viewer begins to understand that these nightmares are very real to Curtis who begins to experience waking hallucinations including thunder, lightening, and in a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock films, birds begin to fly in strange patterns and fall dead from the sky. Curtis seems very aware that there is “something wrong” and seeks help from his family physician who prescribes an expensive sedative as well as a recommendation for a psychiatrist. In a very common scene playing out all over America we see that Curtis is unable to access the psychiatrist as the doctor’s practice is located too far away. So he goes to the library to research mental illness and especially schizophrenia. He discovers that he has at least two of the five symptoms of schizophrenia including hallucinations and delusions. Curtis shares this information with a local counselor who tells him that she cannot diagnose or treat him but that she can only listen.
Not receiving the help that he needs, Curtis begins to act upon his apocalyptic visions in order to protect his family from what he feels is an impending disaster of epic proportions. He takes out a loan he cannot afford and borrows a backhoe from work to expand the family’s storm shelter. Michael Shannon gives the performance of his life in portraying a man plagued with great fear and anxiety while trying to remain stoic and unaffected for his family. Yet his desire to appear sane and stable, crumbles when his wife finds him digging the hole for the expanded storm shelter. She asks what any spouse might ask under these conditions: “Tell me something…that helps me understand why you’re being like this.” Curtis, who cannot understand his own behavior quietly replies, “There’s nothing to explain.”
In seeking an explanation Curtis visits his mother, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in her thirties. Curtis, who is 35, wants to know how her illness began. His mother is unable to give him the answers he needs in order to determine if he is going through the same process. As he leaves his mother we wonder with Curtis, Is he or is he not sane?
The analogy for me between Curtis’s visions of an apocalyptic storm and mental illness deliver the same foreboding punch. Will it strike? How? When? What damage will it do and how do I protect myself and my family from “it”?
It is my opinion that the film’s plot structure and particularly the ending gets in the way of what could be a clear metaphor for a family’s struggle with mental illness. I won’t give anything away but there is a pivotal scene where the movie could have ended but instead it continued, and in doing so, challenged our whole perspective of what this film was really about.
If you suffer from anxiety or any type of mental illness for that matter, there is much to relate to in this movie. I personally could identify with Curtis’s fear that he too would develop a mental illness like schizophrenia knowing that his mother had it. I lived in fear for many years that I would begin to experience hallucinations and delusions as my schizophrenic mother did in her early twenties. I think we can all identify with the frustration of seeking quality mental health treatment and not always finding it. And how about Curtis’s dilemma of whether or not to tell friends, family, and co-workers about his mental illness? How does one talk about it without fear of repercussions? If you suffer from anxiety you will also identify with questioning your fears. Are they real or imagined? And how does one cope with the strong-hold grip of terror?
For me the movie goes beyond diagnosing Curtis or deciding if his visions were based in reality. This film picks us up and places us smack dab in Curtis’s shoes and asks, “Would you take shelter? “