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.