Take Shelter focuses on Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a hardworking family man living a modest life in middle America. After he has increasingly terrifying dreams of an apocalyptic storm, he secretly digs into his family’s savings in order to renovate a storm shelter in his backyard.
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols focuses on the present dangers of this first dream sequence, efficiently establishing what is immediately at stake for Curtis. While the storm remains a constant threat, equal attention is given to the viciousness of Curtis’ dog; his longtime companion, as a result of the storm, now exhibits unsympathetically violent tendencies not just towards Curtis, but Curtis’ family. Nichols’ externalizes Curtis’ increasing anxieties through a straightforward, reaction-based editing style, cutting between the worsening storm, the deep focus shot of Curtis’ daughter and his violent dog, and the fraying leash with increasing speed and urgency. This visual tension is heightened by the sustained monotone of the score as well as the overwhelming pervasiveness of the dog and storm’s distinct sonic qualities; as the storm intensifies into a swirling tornado, the dog’s barking increases in volume, creating an aural tug of war with no clear victor. The visual and aural tension is broken as the dog’s leash finally snaps, freeing the animal to lunge at his master, his booming scream launching Curtis and the viewer back to reality.
But Curtis finds himself unable to shake the intense anxiety of this sequence as his once-peaceful life gradually turns into a waking nightmare. In a director’s statement, Nichols explained that the constant dread which fuels Curtis’ drive to protect his family was born out of the director’s own anxieties towards his first year of marriage and fatherhood. Despite his success, Nichols felt “a nagging feeling that the world at large was heading for harder times.”
“This free-floating anxiety was part economic, part just growing up, but it mainly came from the fact that I finally had things in my life that I didn’t want to lose.”
Nichols’ framing of Take Shelter’s apocalyptic story as one defined by familial and financial anxiety is not just reflective of the director’s own personal experiences, but is also indicative of a quiet yet major shift in the American mindset. Take Shelter arrives in the wake of the mortgage crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, disasters that struck the heart of Heartland America and thrust its citizens into a state of ecological and economic paranoia; the same sentiment is found in every drop of oily black rain in the storm that infests Curtis’ dreams and in his sluggish hesitation to sign the “risky” home improvement loan that’ll fund his storm shelter project. When his family asks him to unlock the shelter doors after the film’s climactic storm, his tearful refusal is far from insane. Not only does Curtis confront the prospect of facing the storm, but also the possibility that such a storm is a result of inherited schizophrenia–leaving the world as it is free to separate him from his family and his finances through inevitable debt and institutionalization. But it’s through Curtis’ gradual acceptance of his possible insanity–as well as his family’s acceptance of his possible prophetic ability–that Take Shelter’s audience finds themselves able to brave whatever personal horrors they must face after the credits roll.
The catharsis that Take Shelter provides for both its director and its audience is reflective of Hoberman’s analysis of the reactions The Exorcist faced upon its release in 1973. Friedkin and Blatty’s tale of lost faith and children possessed paradoxically drew massive audiences when it opened during a holiday season marked by massive layoffs, a plunging stock market, rising oil prices, and Watergate. Hoberman quotes Jerry Rubins’ re-examination of the film after an initally damning review, which emphasizes the “therapeutic experience” such terrifying films provide: “We are all possessed–by our addictions, our loves, our attachments…our social roles…after seeing The Exorcist, I got more in touch with the irrational within me. I am Regan. You are Regan.” Like The Exorcist’s tale of faith restored in the face of evil, Take Shelter’s Curtis serves as a powerful (albeit mentally questionable) guide through the new horrors of an America marked by eco-financial catastrophe.
Jeff Nichols’ Director’s Statement.