"We are being asked to take even larger doses of a medicine that has already proved to be deadly and to undertake commitments that do not solve the problem, but only temporarily postpone the foretold death of our economy." - Hieronymos II
Jeff Nichols directs "Take Shelter". The plot? Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a Middle American breadwinner. Working class, blue collar, stoic and strong, Curtis works long hours for a sand-mining company. Free time is spent drinking, chilling with buddies, caring for his family and tending to various domestic duties. It's the American dream, and Curtis ably provides for his wife and child. "You're doing something right," his buddies tell him.
Look closer, though, and its clear that Curtis is finding it both increasingly difficult and stressful to provide for his family. Determined to preserve the illusion that his little family unit is not under daily assault, he then makes it his duty to hide from them the lengths to which he quietly suffers. Such pressures eventually lead to Curtis suffering a mental breakdown. He experiences a series of apocalyptic vision, most of which involve his loved ones being physically assaulted and/or threatened by thunderstorms. Curtis responds by becoming obsessively intent on building a tornado shelter, the underground room a manifestation of his feverish desire to lovingly cocoon his family; to provide them shelter.
The film ends with Curtis and his family on a beach. Here, for the first time in the film, Curtis' daughter and wife see the storm-clouds which Curtis has been envisioning throughout. This has confused some viewers, but Nichols' intentions are clear, the visions and thunderclouds representative of real life burdens which Curtis, like any good father, anticipates and protects his family from. They are the weights of the father, of the husband, of the lover, of the protector. In the final scene, mother and daughter thus acknowledge these burdens, acknowledge what Curtis has been shielding them from, and so lovingly shoulder some responsibility themselves.
The assaults levelled at Curtis' family come from all angles. The family has financial problems, Curtis' daughter needs an operation, Curtis has copious loans and bills to pay, his mother has a history of mental illness and Curtis is himself clearly suffering from an early onset of schizophrenia. On a broader level, Curtis' visions speak to both his private, domestic anxieties (the loss of his working arm, the loss of home furniture, the theft of his child echoing his mother's abandonment of him as a child etc), and a larger, national anxiety. For Curtis, something is becoming increasingly wrong with America. Families are under assault, things are getting worse, its no longer easy to shelter one's loved ones and all illusions of contentment seem over.
Unsurprisingly for a film written and released in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis (and escalating poverty, unemployment and homelessness levels in the US), financial concerns are voiced throughout. There is much talk of money, spending, loans, debts, "hard times" and several portentous images of gas meters clicking. The film's shots of agitated birds, oil stained rain and mining operations take Nichols' metaphors further; an environmental, financial, even apocalyptic catastrophe is coming. These are all heralded by massive storm clouds, viscous, oil-like rain, the angry funnels of tornadoes, and ominous clusters of birds, plague-like and seemingly torn from the Bible. These are the anxieties of a very specific age. The age of Fukushima, BP, Bear Stearns, Morgan Chase and Occupy, in which thousands are at the mercy of a diagnosis, pink slip or stock market fluctuations, and in which catastrophes both man-made and natural appear to seriously challenge American prospects for future prosperity. America's woken up to the Faustian conditions of American prosperity and suffering the insecurities engendered by late-capitalism.
Of course there have been many films like this released recently ("Company of Men", "Inside Job" etc). Consider too "Melancholia", which likewise explores mental illness against the backdrop of impending annihilation. Most of them, though, have a throughly smug subtext. An unwarranted bemusement, in which confused white characters are shocked that "things are now bad" and "the economy has turned on us". The implication is that "capitlaism is fine when it works for me", problems ignored so long as "they're affecting somebody else". We see hints of this with the climax of "Take Shelter", which arguably displays traces of typical American optimism: "solidarity will help us pull on through", "the storm will blow over", "we're all in this together", "the good times will return" etc etc. Of course American economic prosperity had more to do with other nations being crippled post WW2 than anything else, and this current economic downturn is just another depression predetermined by the inherent contradictions of capitalism. There is something condescending about Curtis' surprise and something dangerous about the family's optimism; capitalism itself runs on psychoses, optimism and quasi-religious faith.
"Shelter" does one thing very well. People have always applied psychological terms to economics (depressions, down turns, animal spirits etc) – our economic system is essentially a giant dopamine engine - but then refuse to acknowledge the linkages between mental illness and capitalism itself. In "Shelter", though, social environment and schizophrenia are explicitly, causally linked. The demands of Curtis' environment makes him totally nuts, and Curtis' Mom is herself given a speech in which her schizophrenia is linked to financial and social problems. Today the rise of schizophrenia and psychosis-like experiences in urban and minority populations supports such a stance; genes alone don't account for psychosis, and purely neurological models don't explain all available data on schizophrenia.
Aesthetically the film's powerful, aside from two cheesy endings (in a cellar and on a beach) that reek of M. Night Shyamalan. Interestingly, the film manages to belong to the Southern Gothic genre despite being set in the Midwestern state of Ohio. Nichol's was born and raised in Arkansas, so perhaps Southern literature pumps through his veins.
8.5/10 - See Steve Kloves' "Flesh and Bone".
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