Film Review – Take Shelter
Mental illness is a theme that is used to showcase many intriguing concepts, such as people overcoming adversity and looking at the darker aspects of the human psyche. The idea has also been used as an easy plot filler in films needing a quick out. In Take Shelter, mental illness is used to look at the life of one family and give us a chance to experience their lives.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a regular guy; he works construction, is happily married to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and they have a young daughter, who, though deaf, has a family that is working to make her life better by learning sign language and trying to get her to socialize. All is peaceful, except that Curtis is suffering from nightmares, and in his dreams violence seems to be threatening him or his daughter. It is getting harder for him to let go and see that they are just dreams. One major theme of each dream is that there is a huge storm going on, and that idea starts to come through when he is awake, seeing birds flying oddly and hearing thunder. Curtis knows that this is probably some form of mental illness. Aware that his family history leaves him open to schizophrenia, he tries to research and solve this on his own, but even then the storm image becomes too strong and he is determined to rebuild the storm shelter in the backyard, regardless of the cost or the risks. While the idea of mental illness is always the most likely explanation, there are hints at the possibility that he may be sensing something that actually is coming.
Mental illness is handled with a light touch here. We see Curtis’s dreams and have a quick sense when something is real and when he is dreaming, so there are none of those gotcha moments. Within the dreams and visions, he has special effects come through, including the intense storms and also the weird flying pattern of the birds. This is never overdone, occurring far between the actions of the characters where the real drama comes through.
While the onset of mental illness or the “visions” is a major driving force of the film, this is at its core a story about characters. Shannon never plays it over the top with the illness. When he has the dreams, we feel his fear come through and see how he tries to deal on his own with them. He is calm but with a sense that things could get worse. Even when he does become more intense about his fears and starts to lose it more, it feels earned because the film has taken its time to build to these moments. Samantha is just as complex in what is usually deemed the “long-suffering wife” role. She is a full-on character, with times of her working and playing with her daughter. She is shown to be caring when she needs to be and tough when necessary with her husband. She yells at him for being late but also makes his breakfast in the morning. In other words, they have a normal marriage (until his illness, anyway). You never doubt her love for her husband; they have true tender moments together and even in the hard times, while she may be angry and forceful, it is out of keeping the marriage together.
One of the films greatest strengths is that it takes the time to build up the characters; we see them in relative normalcy and can relate to them as people. So when things start to go wrong, we have more than just a sense of what is happening to them, but also a deeper curiosity about what will happen. Though at times the languished pacing does start to weigh on you a bit and makes for a few moments when you are taken out of the film, when there is another dream sequence or someone trying to interact with Curtis, we are given a new sense of how he is perceived or how he perceives himself at that stage in his illness.
Now, the one thing that is getting a lot of people annoyed about this film is the ending—that it is just there and doesn’t add anything to the film. While the ending doesn’t advance the overall story, it doesn’t diminish the journey of the film, which is an accomplishment. So many almost-great films can be ruined with a bad ending. The filmmakers here were trying something new and the entire set-up of the film made the ending the hardest part. In wanting to stay true to the strength of the circumstances of the story, this is the only ending they could have had.
This all works because the characters work. We are interested because the people are engaging, from letting us get to know them naturally and not through cheap emotional manipulations. There is no major revelation on the nature of illness, but a glimpse at what it can do in people’s lives. We see the pain they go through, and the film is tough without being unnecessarily cruel, and gives hope without making it an easy out.
Final Grade: B+