By Eric Plaag
Many years ago, I stumbled upon a study that suggested a link between the pineal gland abnormalities found in the brains of schizophrenics and similar abnormalities found in those who claim to possess and appear to demonstrate some measure of psychic ability. The concept fascinated me. What if schizophrenia is just uncontrolled, disorganized psychic ability? I remember, too, my mother’s own bout with what is commonly called, in lay terms, “chemo-brain,” the bizarre behavior that afflicts about 15% of patients who have serious, adverse reactions to intense chemotherapy. My mother said some strange and seemingly nonsensical things during that difficult time just before she passed, but what really creeped me out was how insightful and, yes, prescient some of what she said turned out to be. As a result of all this personal experience with the question, I harbor a secret affinity for stories that are daring enough to explore the “super-insightful or just plain crazy” paradox without resorting to either dismissive conclusions or hackneyed, over-the-top fantasies of fruition.
And so, as if on queue, now comes the new film Take Shelter from director Jeff Nichols, which tackles this bear of a topic with a haunting, mesmerizing flair that I’m not sure I can equate to anything I have ever seen before on screen. Nichols offers the story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), an Ohio gravel excavator who lives a conventional middle class life with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing-impaired young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Money is always tight, disaster always lies one missed paycheck away, and hope hinges on scraping together enough funds and health insurance to secure a cochlear implant for their daughter. Near the beginning of the film, though, Curtis’s sense of hope and well-being is plagued by apocalyptic dreams that he at first wants to dismiss as just vivid nightmares. Starlings play out terrifying murmurations in the sky before him. Strange rain falls from the sky. Twisters appear on the horizon. Soon, these tropes appear as waking visions. He dares not tell his wife, though, and his faint efforts to secure advice from his best friend and co-worker result only in strained awkwardness.
Why? Because Curtis carries the stigma of knowing that his schizophrenic mother once left him as a young boy in the back seat of the car at the grocery store and wandered off, only to be found a week later eating trash out of a dumpster. She never returned home and resides in a specialized care facility. Curtis insists he will not let this happen to him, that he will not leave. For all his dedication, though, his psyche will not let him rest, either. The dreams grow more vivid. He finds himself being attacked in his dreams by those he loves. He doubts the motives of those around him. Sedatives do little to help. A visit to his mother produces the revelation that she never had such dreams but gave in to her madness because “there was always a panic that took hold of me.” Even his productive visits to a counselor are stymied when the system forces him to start fresh again with a new counselor midway through his treatment. His only true solace comes from his commitment to renovating and expanding the backyard tornado shelter, a project that gives him a haven in which to consider the implications of his illness and a hope that he will be able to save his wife and daughter from the apocalypse he nevertheless knows with certainty is coming. It is an all-or-nothing project that may bankrupt his family, cost him his job, and destroy his place in the community.
Curtis’s narrative function as a modern-day Noah is both intentional and wisely conceived. What makes Take Shelter so frighteningly effective, though, is not this narrative structure but the sensory details that accompany Nichols’s delivery. It is no accident that Hannah is deaf or that Curtis struggles to communicate with her, just as the moody precision of David Wingo’s soundtrack and the amplification of and meditation upon mechanical noises here are meant to mimic the aural horrors that both schizophrenics and psychics commonly report. These are people who hear things that the rest of us do not, whether they be voices, or distant, ominous sounds, or that infernal roaring that feels like pressure and trembling just outside the ear canal, as if something terrible — no, something sublime, in the classical sense — hovers just outside one’s full perception, yet poised beside one’s ear, waiting to whisper its secrets. The intense aurality of these experiences is something that Nichols aptly demonstrates he understands, and his use of these devices serves the curious function of distancing us from Curtis, even though our hearts ache for him as he suffers the increasing tortures of his “madness.”
Also at work, though, is Nichols’s meditation on what it means to love someone, the various species of trust that we can possess in life with different people, as well as the rare form that is necessary for a marriage to truly work. At one point, Curtis recoils from Samantha’s touch because he has dreamed of her contemplating his murder. In many films, this brief scene would function purely to illustrate the growing chasm between the two characters, and then it would be forgotten, a mere detail rather than a turn. Here, though, Nichols understands that such moments are never forgotten between man and wife, and that if the marriage is to survive, the meaning of that moment must be negotiated and reframed. More importantly, Curtis must reveal all, and Samantha must trust that his experience is just as he has described, regardless of her fears to the contrary. “I need you to believe me,” he says in desperation, and we know that, yes, he does. Speaking honestly about it, on both sides, is the only hope these characters have for moving past what ails them both. Curtis must demonstrate that he trusts Samantha against his form of reason, just as she must demonstrate the same in return.
Take Shelter is a visually stunning, hauntingly choreographed fever dream on madness and love, insularity and insight. When Curtis stands before his friends and his community and warns them as only a fire and brimstone preacher might that “There is a storm a-comin’,” you will find it difficult not to recoil from him just as they do. He seems in that moment, and because of all of the moments leading up to it, to be exactly what your mother warned you about when she told you to stay away from the crazy people. But there is a storm a-coming, and when the lights come up in the theater, you will realize that you weren’t prepared for the indelible impression that Take Shelter will leave behind on your psyche.
5 out of 5 stars, Theaters