Geoff Pevere: Take Shelter

There’s much method – and Method – in the madness on display in Take Shelter, a movie I just caught up with and which easily qualifies as one of the best things I’ve seen this year. It’s a story of a man possessed.

His name is Curtis, and he’s a construction worker somewhere in Ohio. (It’s typical of the movie’s state of suspended anchorless-ness that we don’t know we’re in Ohio for a good half an hour, and it doesn’t matter.)

When Curtis, who is played by the formidably taciturn Michael Shannon (the guy who briefly walked in and walked away with the movie Revolutionary Road a few years back), looks to the sky, he sees judgement coming: storm clouds brew like churning heavenly cauldrons, green slime drips from above, birds converge into sinewy thick flocks whipping the atmosphere in black waves.

Is Curtis crazy? His mother (who appears in a powerfully emotional single scene played by Kathy Baker) was taken away from her family years ago when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Curtis’s nights are increasingly given over to harrowing nightmares of primal dread. But it all seems so real: when he dreams that he’s attacked by his dog, his arm throbs all the next day. Even though he’s got the wherewithal to seek some kind of psychiatric help – and the scene where Shannon reads his own symptoms from a sheet of notes he’s prepared is one of the movie’s most unshakeably touching — he’s also determined, at catastrophic personal expense, to re-construct his farm-house’s tornado shelter just in case.

He’s certainly got reason to worry. His job is tenuous, his daughter needs treatment for her hearing problem, and his wife (Jessica Chastain) saves for their annual Myrtle Beach getaway by selling home-made crafts in a parking lot flea market. Times are beyond tough, and these intimations of apocalypse in that sense seem weirdly reasonable: who wouldn’t be prepared for the worst under the circumstances? Who wouldn’t suspect that the end was nigh?

The wondrous thing about writer-director Jeff Nichols‘ account of heartland psychic trauma is how deftly – and disturbingly – it leaves all options open. On a literal level, and in no small part due to the phenomenally interiorized performance of Shannon, Curtis does appear to be growing unhinged: he’s seeing things that aren’t there, and in yet another of this movie’s startling scenes, he pulls over to the side of the highway at night to watch an electrical storm in which the sky seems to be ripping itself apart. Staring at the sky and then back at his wife and daughter sleeping soundly in the car, he wonders: “Does nobody else see this?”

Take Shelter is one part a study of personal psychic collapse (in the tradition of Taxi DriverRepulsion andClean, Shaven), one part a metaphor for America’s lingering post-millennial economic and world-historical hangover, and one part an especially daring what-if scenario, as in what if Curtis is both crazy and right? What if his craziness is somehow completely rational? To keep all these parts in equal if oh-so-delicate balance, the movie has to maintain a grasp of tone that’s a little like holding lightning itself. We’ve got to understand both Curtis and the world he lives in, and we’ve got to entertain the possibility that the man is undergoing derangement while being both sympathetic to him personally and seeing the outside world for what it is: treacherous, uncertain and entirely conducive to the care and nurturing of nightmares.

I don’t subscribe to any end-of-times theories – because there are and have always been end-of-times theories – but I certainly get why certain times seem closer to the end or at least more end-like than others. And this is one of them. When the future either seems uncertain or unthinkable, the Curtis in some of us always wonders if this is it. In a way, pondering the end of it all is easier than pondering the what-if of uncertainty. Because what’s more certain, and therefore strangely comforting, than the idea that it’s all about to go kerflooey?

This is ultimately a movie about the lonely spirit, and in its way every bit as profound and arguably more powerful than the Tree of Life. I say ‘more’ precisely because the delicate balance the movie sets for itself means that it can’t afford the full metaphysical flight Terrence Malick’s movie can: it has to remain partially grounded not only in Curtis’s earthly psyche but in the mundane economic and social circumstances that provide the real landscape in which his apparent craziness makes – so to speak – such perfect sense. When you get right down to it, the big question is not whether or not Curtis is losing his mind, but why the rest of world can’t see what he does. I mean, who’s really crazy?


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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: Take Shelter”

  1. Michael Shannon is a genius of an actor (loved him in the Runaways and in Boardwalk Empire). I’m putting this film on my list to watch!

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