One professor at my department, who studied neuroscience, once told us something you have probably heard from somewhere: if you think you are crazy or getting crazy, that means you are not crazy because crazy people do not know that they are crazy. Come to think of it again now, this sounds a lot like that famous dilemma from Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”, but, at least, I thought at that time it was a nice advice for the students who had to deal with lots of pressure from the academic process and resulting stress.
It can also be a good advice to the hero of “Take Shelter”(2011), for he thinks at first something is wrong with his head. However, he cannot ignore what disturbs him deeply every night. He tries to quell the turbulence of his mind as far as he can, but, ironically, he is gradually transformed into a more disturbed man obsessed with the visions attacking him every night, and it is quite possible that he is the upcoming threat to the family he wants to protect, not the catastrophe of epic proportion he fears.
What Curtis(Michael Shannon) experiences in his dreams are very frightening indeed. In the opening scene, he sees the big storm clouds in the sky while the dark, thick rain droplets are falling from the sky. Many disturbing moments follow in the subsequent nightmares. His dog suddenly attacks him and bites his arm. He and his daughter suddenly find themselves attacked by strangers as if they were in some sort of zombie movie. His house gets impacted by some unknown force outside the house. And he begins to see and hear disturbing things even when he is really awake during day.
Though he keeps being agitated by the dreams with apocalyptic undertone, he tries to maintain his daily life in a nice little town somewhere in Ohio while searching for the solution to his problem. He knows it is possible that he is getting crazy. His mother was diagnosed to have paranoid schizophrenia, so it is possible that he is also being fallen into the same mental illness due to genetic factors. He checks several books on psychology at the library. He also meets the counselor to get more advice and help. He is prescribed with the medicines for alleviating his symptoms.
But these dreams still visit him and they continue to exert sinister effects on his mind. There are of course several ‘it was a dream’ moments in the film, but the director/writer Jeff Nichols makes these clichés into something truly terrifying with effective CGIs. The dream scenes look so vivid and realistic that we can understand why Curtis is frightened a lot by the possibilities they ominously implied to him. You know it’s not real, but you can feel how excruciating it is to him when you see his terrified face with his teeth clenched tightly in one of his nightmares – this is much scarier than what’s happening before his eyes.
Michael Shannon’s increasingly anxious performance, which was unjustly not nominated for Best Actor Oscar in this year, is crucial for the mounting suspense in the film. I noticed Shannon for the first time in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”(2006), and he has been memorable as intense or disturbed characters in several films including “Bug”(2006), in which he and Ashley Judd plunge themselves into the pit of madness with no compromise, and “Revolutionary Road”(2008), where he shatteringly trembles his co-actors as a truth teller in the story.
In this film, you can easily imagine Shannon in the remake version of “The Dead Zone”(1983), where Christopher Walken plays an ordinary man unnerved by the disturbing visions only he can see. He deftly conveys us the seething instability inside his character’s mind with the quiet but uncomfortable intensity exuding from his face. Curtis is a nice family man we can like, but he finds himself helplessly unhinged by what’s eating him inside while barely hiding his torment from others near him. He wants to talk about his woes, but it is not easy for him to talk openly about them, because he has the responsibility to support his family as the husband and father. His daughter with hearing problem fortunately gets a good chance to have a cochlear implant surgery, and he is well aware that his mental problem may ruin this fortune.
He attempts to take care of his problems by himself through getting rid of the sources of the fears induced by his dreams. He builds a makeshift pen for keeping his dog inside, and then, still not satisfied with that measure, he eventually gives it to his brother(their brief conversation scene suggests the bitter mutual feeling about their unhappy past). Because he is afraid of the possibility of a massive tornado, which can really occur suddenly in his region, he begins to renovate and expand the storm shelter in his backyard. He worries about toxic gas, and then he purchases gas masks and put them in the shelter.
However, this does not give him any peace of his mind. Moreover, while his dreams move toward the fears more personal than before, his behaviors deteriorate the relationships between others. As a close friend, his co-worker Dewart(Shea Whigham) willingly helps Curtis when he wants to use the equipments from their construction company without permission, even though he can be fired with Curtis for that. However, like Curtis’ wife, he begins to sense something is wrong with his friend, and Curtis’s paranoid puts another wedge on their friendship, which eventually leads him to the breaking point where Shannon delivers one hell of overwhelmingly rampant moment which made my eyes wide open even during the second viewing.
In case of Curtis’ wife Samantha(Jessica Chastain), she is in lots of frustration because of her husband’s inexplicable behaviors. She is not mad about his trouble, but she is angry because he puts the family into the financially precarious position without any discussion with her. The horror in Curtis’ dreams may only exist in his head, but the horror of losing a job along with the health insurance is terrifyingly real to his family as well as him. When I learned about how scary it is to lose a job in US through a book around 10 years ago, it only came to me as a mere fact of American life, but now it becomes more real to me through several recent movies including this film.
Chastain had a dazzling breakthrough in last year with a bunch of her stellar performances in the movies including “The Tree of Life”(2011) and “The Help”(2011). In “Take Shelter”, she is a warm, understanding heart of the story like she was in “The Tree of Life”. Samantha feels hurt and angered because of her husband’s recklessness, and she does not hide her resentment from her husband when she thinks enough is enough. Nevertheless, she decides to stay besides him with a practical plan for their uncertain and messy future, although her husband’s mental disturbance now even casts a shadow of doubt over their relationship.
As a consequence, their mutual trust and love are put into the ultimate test after another frightful vision visits upon Curtis at one dark, stormy night. I will not describe what will happen in details, but let’s say the movie tightly focuses on Shannon and Chastain without giving any hint of what’s going on outside, and these two talented performers are superlative to watch in this claustrophobically suspenseful sequence which eventually elevates itself to one of the most moving moments I encountered recently.
Jeff Nichols previously impressed me a lot with his debut work, “Shotgun Stories”(2007), which was one of the small gems I watched in 2009. That movie was also a family drama both intimate and intense in many aspects. I instinctively realized what kind of the story was and then was surprised by how it was told. I fondly remember how that movie carefully established the bleak sense of ill fate over the wide field surrounding them, and, again, Nichols does an excellent job of setting the right tone and atmosphere for the landscape of his second film. The outdoor scenes are mostly sunny and bright with the occasional shots of the wide field, but, beneath the mundane atmosphere, there is the tense, uneasy feeling you cannot easily put a finger on, and we know something can suddenly happen at any moment. Is it possible that Curtis’ dreams are not just the delusions caused by a mental illness?
While observing Curtis being driven to near madness, I recalled Akira Kurosawa’s “I Live in Fear”(1955). In that film, so fearful of the nuclear war, a middle-aged man tries to move his family to Brazil using all the money he has, and his family thinks he is crazy. As he is reminded belatedly later, this is insane considering that the nuclear war will annihilate almost everyone on the earth, but the movie suggests that it may be also a little insane to live while not worrying about the potential of the catastrophe like that.
But I think that’s how our mind works for us. We know we live with the uncertainty in the world and its inherent dangers. We sometimes worry about the accidents and disasters whenever we hear about them from the media. Fortunately, they do not happen often, and our mind distances ourselves from the reality a bit even while accepting, or forgetting, that anything can happen. We can say that poor Curtis suffers because the mental barrier which has buffered his mind from the reality is broken.
The final scene of “Take Shelter” does not give any confirmation on my thoughts about Curtis’ problem. As many of you know, this kind of story usually arrives at the question of whether the answer is, say, A or B, or somewhere between them, and the movie goes with the third option which can frustrate some of us due to resulting ambiguity.
But it certainly leaves us something to think and discuss about, while slowly, and effectively, revealing its surprise to us. I am not so sure about what exactly happens or what it means, but all I can say is that, while musing on this scene, it comes to my mind that it has been a long time since I used that psychiatric term – folie à deux, or, more specifically, folie en famille in this case.
Folie a deux-quite a surprise to encounter the term in your blog! The plot is somewhat appetizing to quirky tastes like mine!
SC: I learned it from “The X-files”.