A Panic Takes Hold

Like all great films, Jeff Nichols‘ latest film, Take Shelter, speaks to the times in which we live. It powerfully reveals the destructive hold that irrational fear can exert on an individual and a community and is, as such, a deeply spiritual film. It’s also one of the biggest Oscar snubs of this awards season as Michael Shannon‘s captivating performance was left un-nominated. Nichols himself is slowly emerging as a most important writer/director in American cinema. In the end, Take Shelter is a multilayered prophetic film that leaves unanswered questions of what is real and what is imagined and of what we should be afraid of and what’s simply all in our head.


Shannon plays Curtis, a middle-aged Missourian with a wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a young, deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis seems to have what his co-worker and best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham), calls “a good life.” By that, Dewart means that Curtis has a comfortable home, a loving family, and seemingly stable finances. For Dewart, this seems to be the goal for which every man should strive. However, all is not well with Curtis. He begins having violent dreams and disturbing hallucinations. That his mother was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia when he was 10 leads Curtis to believe that he might be suffering a similar fate. He begins working on expanding his family’s storm shelter, a seemingly irrational act that gets him fired (illegally using company machinery) and alienates him from his family and friends. Curtis is steadfast in his belief that a storm of unparalleled proportions is bearing down on his community and that none of his neighbors are prepared for it.

Nichols’  (who also directed the fantastic Shotgun Stories) film is horrific in the truest sense of the word as he trades over-the-top “jump shots” and gore for subtlety and atmosphere. The mood becomes more unsettling even as Curtis’ dreams become less violent, signaling a “threat shift” from forces beyond Curtis’ control to Curtis himself. Nichols and editor Parke Gregg employ spot-on editing between scenes on individual shots and sounds which helps move the film along smoothly even as some of these transitions can be jarring or confusing (what is a dream and what is reality?). Shannon’s portrayal of a person who could either be mentally disturbed or a legitimate, but raving, prophet is a masterful bit of acting that never becomes campy for one moment. The ways in which he masters both minor tics and raging outbursts to convey seething anger and fear are the true highlights of his performance and the film.

There’s a lot going on here in terms of metaphor and allegory. Perhaps the most obvious, yet by no means simplest, are the ways in which it serves as a metaphor for the (often) irrational fears that grip our society in a post-9/11 world, especially among people, many of whom are like Curtis, that seem to have little of which they should be afraid. Nevertheless, as many of us are aware, the 24-hour news media loves to trade in images and dialogues of fear. Advertising, travel, and consumption are controlled by it. Although Nichols could have used this media/marketing trope to a greater extent, he resists. While Curtis is disturbed by one news account of a chemical spill that further motivates his bit of “home improvement,” his nightmares and hallucinations seem to have sources beyond reason. He dreams that his dog attacks him, that co-worker and good friend Dewart assaults him, that he and his daughter are in a wreck and people try to separate them, that Samantha is on the verge of killing him, and that a powerful force is wreaking havoc on his house.

Curtis’ dreams soon make him a far greater threat to those around him than any of the perceived threats about which he dreams. We get the sense that, at any moment, he could snap and do great physical harm to his own family. But Curtis also suffers as these dreams leave lingering feelings of physical pain, and he even experiences a seizure during one of them. Beyond physical pain and threats, the emotional toll that his perceived experiences take on his wife and daughter are significant enough.

Just how safe is Curtis and his family?

The events that Curtis witnesses occasionally smack of apocalyptic, biblical imagery. Birds fly in hypnotic patterns and violent thunderstorms ravage Curtis’ waking and sleeping life. As a result, some viewers might detect commentary on rapture-watchers, those believers who interpret real-world events in theological fashion as signs of the impending end of the world. The effects that such world views can have on communities, nations, and even the world can certainly be detrimental to the well-being of each. When Curtis visits his mother in an assisted living home to inquire about her institutionalizations, she tells him, “There was always a panic that took hold of me.” When one watches most conservative, evangelical “news” commentary on world events, there’s a tangible sense of panic about the proceedings.

All this social and religious critique notwithstanding, there’s another biblical narrative that deserves attention when discussing Take Shelter, namely, the story of Noah and the Ark. There’s certainly an implication at the end of the film that Curtis might not be crazy after all. As he tells Samantha earlier in the film, “I’m doing it for us. There’s nothing to explain.” Like Noah, Curtis’ neighbors whisper that he’s just crazy. Samantha and Hannah stand beside him even though the former has her doubts. Curtis also tells Samantha, “It’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right. I cannot describe it, I just need you to believe me.” Prophets have always appeared more than a little crazy. They seem even crazier when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. Perhaps, Nichols leaves the possibility open that Curtis, while seeming crazy, is in fact a bearer of truly bad news. As a result, Nichols places the onus on both the cinematic viewers and real world audiences to determine which is which.

At the end of the film, it is the “both/and-ness” of Take Shelter that makes it such an engaging experience and one well worth re-visiting in the fearful times in which we find ourselves. I’m not giving away much here, but Curtis eventually takes his family into the expanded storm shelter. By taking us through those deeply disturbing moments, Nichols implicitly asks us, “If you know when to enter the storm shelter to protect yourself from that which you fear, how do you know when it’s time to come out?”

Take Shelter (120 mins.) is rated R for some language and is currently on DVD.