“You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.”
Some of us can catalog our various family member’s mental illnesses with pinpoint accuracy even though we’re not mental health professionals. Over the years we’ve learned how to navigate the family landmines. We come from crazy, but we’re survivors. The thing with having mental illness in your family is that it doesn’t just make your interactions with family members difficult, stressful, and utterly exhausting, but it also leads to a lifetime of obsessing over whether or not you’ve inherited the family legacy no one wants.
This sort of constant, hovering anxiety is at the core of Jeff Nichols’s 2011 film Take Shelter. It stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, a rural Ohio husband, father, and construction worker whose mental health appears to be deteriorating before our eyes. He’s suffering from both apocalyptic nightmares and audio-visual hallucinations. Or is he? The film never explicitly spells out what is happening to Curtis, so it could be a breakdown, or maybe Curtis really is the only person who can see that an actual, honest-to-god apocalypse is coming.
That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of Take Shelter. Nichols allows us to interpret the subject matter in whichever way we choose. The film works no matter which option we gravitate towards. For me, and likely for many others as well, the film masterfully portrays what it’s like to anxiously worry about one’s family history catching up to them.
The terror we feel for Curtis is staggeringly real, thanks largely to Michael Shannon’s Oscar-worthy performance. As a man struggling to protect his family from either the end of the world or himself, Shannon is absolutely devastating. We learn that his mother had a nervous breakdown in her early 30s. She just vanished, leaving ten year-old Curtis alone in the car outside the grocery store. When the nightmares and hallucinations intensify, Curtis visits his mother (played by Kathy Bates) at her assisted living facility. With a pained expression, he probes for insights into her past in order to make sense of his present. A large part of him doesn’t want to know what she remembers, because to know is to confirm what he’s feared for at least 25 years. Possibly due to early onset dementia though, she doesn’t remember much. It’s still enough to make Curtis more anxious.
Curtis and his wife Samantha have a young daughter, whose deafness was likely caused a few years before the events of the film, maybe from an illness like meningitis. On one of the DVD’s special features, Jessica Chastain, who plays Samantha, says that her through-line for the story was simple: at its core, this is a love story. It’s about one half of a relationship struggling, falling apart even, while the other half attempts to bring him back to her, to their daughter, to their shared life. This is another aspect that Nichols expertly navigates – mental illness is not only hard on the mentally ill, but also incredibly difficult for their spouses or partners. Chastain is brilliant, matching Shannon’s excellence every step of the way. Samantha and Curtis live in a modest house with plenty of land, a beautiful daughter, and a mutual respect for each other. It all begins to unravel though, and watching Chastain fight to save Curtis from himself is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
Curtis keeps his condition a secret from Samantha until it’s impossible to hide it anymore. He takes out a home improvement loan without her knowledge, to satisfy his anxiety and build an underground shelter from the deathly storm he can feel coming. Then he loses his job, putting his daughter’s cochlear impact surgery in jeopardy. He’s imploding. The nightmarish visions are worse than ever and his waking hours are fraught with anxiety.
Interestingly, and refreshingly, Nichols has Curtis seek out professional help on several occasions. But as anyone who’s done this can attest, it’s not easy, and the film captures that experience. First Curtis sabotages himself by cancelling an appointment with the esteemed psychologist his doctor recommends, because it’s a long drive. He sees a local therapist who quickly transfers out and he’s stuck staring over all over again with someone else. For people struggling with mental illness, this can be all it takes to discourage them from pursuing therapy. When the new therapist asks Curtis to basically regurgitate everything he’d already told the last therapist, Curtis takes a moment to compose himself, then gets up and walks out the door without saying a word. A silent but powerful gesture that speaks volumes about how it’s never as simple as telling someone to just “get some help.”
Things come to a head at a Lion’s Club dinner with other members of the community. Pushed, both psychologically and physically, by a former friend, Curtis explodes in a rage. Shannon, whose quiet, bottled-up anxiety has been fueling his performance up to now, unleashes an epic cinematic meltdown. As the room full of people stare awkwardly or gasp in shock, Curtis rants and raves about the coming storm and how “not a one of you is prepared!” Shannon’s ferocity in this moment is staggering. Then, when he sees his daughter clutching to her mommy’s legs, he stops, and begins to crash after his mania. Burying his head on Samantha’s shoulder, spent and scared, Curtis is like a child again.
The big test arrives with the blaring sound of emergency sirens in the middle of the night, as Curtis leads his family down below, to the storm shelter that his anxiety compelled him to build. After several hours, Samantha tells him the storm has passed; its safe to unlock and open the doors. Curtis freezes. He can’t do it. In his mind, his family may still be in danger. Samantha stands firm: “Open the door.” Shannon and Chastain bristle with intensity. I’ve been on both sides of this relationship dynamic at various times in my life. The scene captures what it’s like to be caught in the grip of an anxiety attack and what it’s like to be the partner trying to reel their loved one back to reality. What ultimately leaves me with a feeling of hope even thought it’s such a emotionally draining film, is that even when Samantha is angry or fed up, she never stops trying to save Curtis. By the time we reach the ambiguous ending, we know that even if the storm Curtis feared all along is indeed coming, Samantha is by his side to stand against it.
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion in which the sufferer can only see the worst possible outcome to a stressful scenario. Much of Curtis’s behavior seems in line with catastrophizing. I have family members who do this. I do this. I tell myself I don’t do it that often, or that intensely, but that’s only true part of the time. This is both inherited and learned behavior, in my experience. Sometimes, when stressed, I have to work tooth and nail to bypass those feelings, lest I spiral into an anxious state that eventually drains me of all my energy. The film’s heightened depictions of anxiety and panic attacks resonate because they speak truthfully to what many of us have lived with, or continue to live with, throughout our lives. Curtis’s catastrophizing is acute and damaging to every aspect of his existence. I’ve had those moments myself. At various points, I’ve been unable to control myself from spinning through one potential bad outcome after another in my head. Like Curtis, I first witnessed this sort of behavior in my parents and extended family members. I’ve been hyperaware of these traits in relatives since I was young enough to realize they were unhealthy to productive living. Take Shelter understands this. It understands the cascading effects of mental illness, passing from generation to generation. Watching Curtis come to grips with it himself is dificult, but also provides a cinematic reflection of what a large number of us have experienced ourselves.
Even in these extremely difficult times, I’ve never once felt like the end of days was upon us. Sure, all the signs point to it, but hope always drives me to retain some faith in our survival. Hope is what’s gotten me through my own panic attacks, my own harrowing life struggles. Curtis’s experience is more tragic than my own, or maybe more so than yours, or your sister’s, or your best friend’s experiences. But it’s still a reflection of how it feels to be crippled, even momentarily, by your mind’s disordered thinking. We all suffer, at various times and to varying degrees. Take Shelter faithfully, thoughtfully expresses this truth in ways few films ever have. And it’s this recognition that offers a measure of comfort to anyone in need of shelter from the storm.