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Take Shelter (2011) – The Power of Nightmares

December 6, 2011

The Twentieth Century was kind to the American people. A continent claimed and a nation forged, the Americans dipped their toes into the waters of international politics with a pair of heroically late entries into wars that ultimately destroyed the great European powers of the 19th Century. Generation by generation, the American people became wealthier and wealthier while their language and culture travelled the world breaking boundaries and making friends. By the end of the twentieth century, life was so good for so many Americans that historians proclaimed history to be at an end: America had won and the American people stood at the very pinnacle of human flourishing. Never in the history of human affairs had one society been so wealthy and so powerful. The future was bright, the future was American.

Then something peculiar happened. The economic forces that once promised universal wealth and happiness suddenly began to cough and stutter as skyscrapers collapsed in downtown New York. Shaken and traumatised, the American people demanded that American blood be avenged ten-fold but the wars this sentiment created produced nothing but trouble. There was no revenge or glory, there was only a bottomless sea of moral ambiguity and America was rapidly running out of beach. Denied the cathartic closure of a ‘good war’, the American people retreated into their dream of cosy consumerism but the events of September 11 were nothing but a grim foreshadowing of the economic collapses to come. September 11 messed up a few buildings but the credit crunch destroyed an entire way of life. Suddenly, the long balmy evening of eternal economic growth was cut short and, for the first time in generations, Americans were less well off than their parents. Not only that but working seemed not to help as millions of Americans worked multiple jobs but still struggled to hang on to their homes. To this day, many Americans spend all day working and yet feed themselves and their families from soup kitchens.

After a series of brutal kicks to the abdomen, the American dream lies bleeding and gasping for breath but when people look around for help or guidance they find a political class that is constitutionally incapable of recognising a problem. With millions unemployed and an entire generation of young people being shovelled onto the scrap heap of history, the American media and political elites seem more worried about the president’s religion and nationality while public discourse has devolved to the point where it amounts to nothing more than a pair of cowardly tribes who shout insults across the battlefield without ever ordering a charge. Something is profoundly wrong with the American way of life and yet neither American politicians nor American journalists seem prepared to acknowledge it. To admit fear and worry would be too un-American and so the people of America hunker down and wait with anxieties unaddressed and uneased.

Jeff Nichols’ psychological thriller Take Shelter is a brave attempt at confronting the fears that grip American society. It is a film about the reality of living scared and the problems that come from failing to address these all-pervasive feelings of dread.

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is ostentatiously American. Husband to the beautiful Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to the deaf Hannah (Tova Stewart), he lives in a fly-over state where he works construction, goes to church and attends Lions’ Club dinners.  In fact, he’s so American that he has an American flag on his hardhat. Curtis’s life seems to be going pretty well but suddenly he starts to have nightmares.

 

In many ways, Take Shelter is an extended riff on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) where the onset of madness was explored by creating a degree of ambiguity around the images seen on screen. Polanski recreated the fractured mind in cinematic form by continuously shifting between the world of facts and the world of his protagonist’s delusions. While some delusions were obviously false (as in the case of the wall that erupts with hands), others were a good deal more real (as in the case of the man who breaks into her apartment and tries to rape her). What made this ambiguity so unsettling was the fact that it served to place the audience in a similar position to the film’s protagonist in that they could no longer tell where reality ended and delusion began. Take Shelter pursues a similar line of attack by blurring the boundaries of Curtis’s nightmares.

Curtis’s dreams invariably begin with scenes of mundane domesticity. Because these early moments are so normal, the boundary between dream and reality is blurred and it is only when the dream begins to spiral off into fantastical imagery that we can safely identify what we see on screen as the content of Curtis’s dreams. However, having presented the world of dreams as similar to the world of the real at the opening of his dream sequences, Nichols then reverses the trick by allowing the world of dreams to bleed back into the world of facts at the end of the sequences. He does this by ending every dream with the image of Curtis experiencing a seizure. While these images unambiguously situate us back in the real world, the seizures are so upsetting to watch that they effectively carry the tension and unpleasantness of the dream world back into the real world. With the horror of nightmares refusing to dissipate even in the light of day, Curtis finds himself increasingly convinced that, as in his dreams, the cosy domesticity of his real life could erupt into horror at any minute.

 

Take Shelter further complicates the techniques deployed in Repulsion by presenting Curtis’s problem as a blurring of the boundaries not between reality and delusion but between mundane reality, fantastical reality and the possibility that he is actually following his mother’s path into schizophrenia. Thus Curtis finds himself trapped between the need to get a hold of himself, the need to seek psychiatric help and the need to dig an enormous fallout shelter in order to protect his family.

Nichols further complicates matters by presenting Curtis’s fears as pointedly metaphorical. There’s a wonderful scene where Curtis visits his bank manager in order to apply for the unsecured loan that will allow him to build a fallout shelter in his back yard. Far from eager to take Curtis’s business, the bank manager reminds him that these are not good times to go into debt and that he will have to re-mortgage his house in order to pay for the construction of the shelter. Thus Curtis’s fears become self-fulfilling as the encroaching terror of the credit crunch forces Curtis to dangerously over-extend himself, thereby making his fears more likely to come true. The sense that Curtis is opening up a world of economic woe is then paid off in a scene where Jessica Chastain’s Sam learns the extent of Curtis’s folly and channels all of her rage, fear and disappointment into a single resounding slap. Take Shelter is not just a film about American attempts to cope with fear, it is also an attempt to demonstrate how a culture of fear can effectively re-shape reality to the point where your greatest fears really can come true.

In Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols has created a film that takes the uncannily ambiguous ontology of films like Repulsion and takes the ambiguity to the next level. Indeed, watching Take Shelter one is never clear of where one’s focus should sit. The film works equally well as a horror film, a family drama, a postmodern head-fuck and an elaborate political allegory and much of the narrative revolves around Nichols attempts to move between all of these ontological registers in a distinctly disorienting fashion. The ending of the film is particularly striking in this respect as Nichols guides us through at least three separate endings designed to repeatedly pull to rug from beneath any attempt to pin down not only where reality ends and dreams begin but also how we should apprehend the film. By the time the credits roll, the only thing that is certain is that something is heading towards the family and that reason, retreat, escape and delusion are all equally valid and equally flawed reactions to what is effectively the end of the world. Take Shelter captures the spirit of madness and fear by presenting us with a cinematic world that defies easy analysis in terms of truth, fiction, delusion and metaphor.  When nothing is neither true nor false, how can one decide how to act? The answer is that we cannot and this is the state that America is currently in.

2 Comments
  1. December 9, 2011 7:29 pm

    Question: At the time when the British Empire ended, were there British films, novels or other fictional narratives that dealt with the “end of the [British-dominated] world” on a metaphorical level?

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  2. December 11, 2011 9:25 am

    Most famously, the ‘Cosy Catastrophe’ books of John Wyndham.

    Cinematically, I’m not so sure. I know there was a short-lived and largely forgotten British film noir movement that kicked off when the US expelled all of their socialist film-writers. Lots of those films were set in post-Blitz London and had an ‘end of the world’ feel but I think you have to bear in mind that 1940s Britain wasn’t as emotionally open about the end of empire as the Americans clearly are about theirs. One didn’t make one’s fears public, also I think that a lot of the end of empire feeling was deadened by the experience of the war. US quality of life is falling off a cliff but the UK lost its empire in the context of a war and never really got it back. Different psychological context.

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