Shelter From What Exactly?
Directed by Jeff Nichols
In my personal experience, lack of control over anxious thoughts feels like a looming cloud.
When I used to struggle with mental health, I’d go throughout my day distracting myself with school and work and friends. However, at the end of the day, I could not hide from my own thoughts. It’s exhausting to continually have to shelter from these storms; they force you to either stay hidden inside or face the rain. Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, is based on the idea of mental health and revolves around facing the rain but longing for shelter – literally. A man sees his deepest fears come to unfortunate fruition after working tirelessly to avoid them. This movie’s takeaways and themes are revealed in its final seconds, and it left me emotionally dissatisfied. It’s the kind of film that you have to sit with and let the ideas bake. As I’ve done that, I’ve resonated personally with its clever symbolism.
The movie begins with Curtis, a man in his mid-thirties, standing in the middle of a storm. Thick, amber rain falls on his hands as dark clouds loom. This storm never leaves him, revisiting him in his dreams and worsening his mental state. Increasingly anxious, Curtis begins to expand their storm shelter, but at the expense of his relationships. Facing that he is battling schizophrenia, a health expert finally advises seeking treatment at a facility, which Curtis has dreaded throughout the film. The family decides to go on their annual trip to Myrtle Beach before he starts treatment and Curtis and his daughter are playing in the sand when suddenly, she points out over the water. Curtis runs to his wife, who stares at the dooming storm approaching. The movie ends as the same amber raindrops fall on her hands, as she looks to him and says, “Okay.”
While the rest of the film was a slow accumulation of suspenseful moments, the ending clearly reveals the theme. As bystanders of other people’s mental processes, we often take on the position of Curtis’s wife, Samantha. We try our best to support but never truly understand the fears that someone with a mental disorder actually encounters on a daily basis. In the last few seconds of the movie, the storm approaching obviously sends him into panic, but also allows for a sigh of relief; Curtis is no longer the only one who has to live with his fears. Samantha is finally able to face it with him. She holds a new understanding, as the storm also metaphorically represents the mental treatment that follows the trip. Curtis has run from the nightmare storm just as he has avoided treatment, and the ending leaves us questioning how he will face both without his shelter available for him to hide. Asking for help and being vulnerable is a difficult task for anyone struggling with mental health, but making these topics a comfortable thing to talk about is the first step in opening up this daunting door.
The film’s audio and visual elements contribute to the suspenseful tone. While the elements of the story increase the stakes, suspense builds visually as well. The sound editing grew somber tension. The silence felt chilling, connecting us to the inner state of the main character. The use of music allowed me to know when the director wanted me to feel uncomfortable, and sometimes the sounds felt piercing and invasive, like mental illness.
Finally, the editing speed was extremely important in building the effect necessary for the audience to feel the graveness of this storm. In the final scene, Samantha stares ominously into what we’d assume is a dark mass of storm clouds. The shot is particularly long – painfully long actually. In the time I spent waiting and dreading the shot of the storm to appear, I quickly tried to tie connections together. Where would they hide? What next? Not only this shot’s editing speed but specifically Curtis’s character development allowed me to connect deeply to this particular scene. When the shot finally cuts to reveal Curtis’s dreaded storm, I too felt the weight of it coming. Disappointed that Curtis wouldn’t be able to use the shed he spent so much time and money on, I too felt helpless.
With most films, I usually interpret them based off on personal experiences and emotions – like most people I would guess. I am incredibly in touch with my emotions, so it doesn’t take a while to connect the dots and interpret how I feel. But the complexity and cloudiness of this story mimics that of the human brain. Take Shelter’s themes of empathy and vulnerability directly transport us not only into a new story world, but into the chilling thoughts of another human.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production design by Chad Keith; costumes by Karen Malecki; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat), Ray McKinnon (Kyle), LisaGay Hamilton (Kendra), Robert Longstreet (Jim) and Kathy Baker (Sarah).