[Note: This essay contains spoilers. It is an expansion of my original October 2011 post on Take Shelter.]
When suddenly / Johnny / gets the feeling / he's being surrounded by / horses, horses, horses, horses / coming in in all directions / white shining silver studs / with their nose in flames / he saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses...
—Patti Smith, "Land"
Once in a great while, a horror film emerges that seems to crystallize an exact moment in the American experience, turning over rocks to expose the squirming maggots that were hitherto unacknowledged. Take Shelter is that sort of film, a work of cinema that seems to perceive the fears of 2011 almost intuitively and give them a vivid, disturbing expression. George Romero achieved a similar feat in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, and Tobe Hooper did it again in 1974 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like a young Romero or Hooper, writer-director Jeff Nichols operates outside the confines of the Hollywood studio system, and like his predecessors he seems remarkably attuned to the anxieties that lurk in the American consciousness. While Take Shelter is a much more polished film than the gritty Living Dead or Chainsaw Massacre, and a much more understated kind of horror story, it possesses a similar, disturbing genuineness.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Take Shelter is the elegant operation of its story on two discrete levels that mingle and reinforce one another. One the one hand is what might be termed the Dream Reality of Curtis' nightmarish visions. In that reality, the threats are fantastical and attuned to fairly classical horror film conventions. On the other hand is the Waking Reality of Curtis' daily life, where the threats are of the everyday variety that anyone might confront. The brilliance of Nichols' script rests on how it employs the particular strengths of each of these realities to create a very powerful, emotionally resonant story.
At the most rudimentary level, horror films function by giving form to everyday human fears: our fear of sexual violation becomes a vampire; our fear of uncontrolled rage becomes a werewolf; our fear of nuclear annihilation becomes a colossal mutant reptile. If a horror film can be said to have a function beyond mere entertainment, it is to provide catharsis for these fears, a safe space where they can be unleashed and subdued. Through the horror genre, the viewer experiences a world in which their worst anxieties are allowed to run rampant, only to be defeated in the end. There are endless variations on this formula—and, of course, in the current cynical era, the monster often wins—but in general, this is the template according to which horror films operate.
The Dream Reality of Take Shelter hews to that template, and it is very effective at evoking old-school, spine-tingling scares. Granted, there is no specific monster in Curtis’ visions, no vampire or werewolf. The threat is a force, an oncoming apocalyptic storm. The nature of the storm is mysterious—there is no explanation as to whether it represents a scientific or supernatural phenomenon—but Curtis knows that it is Bad with a capital "B". He can feel in his bones that something terrible is going to happen when the storm arrives, and based on what the viewer witnesses in his visions, it's hard to disagree. Those visions feature vivid and haunting imagery: thick, oily rain; arcs of lightning; flocks of birds; warping gravity; funnel clouds reaching down from the sky. The film is relatively restrained about the use of this imagery, and as a result the emotional effect it elicits is very potent. That said, the most frightening aspect of Curtis' dream-storm is the effect it has on living things. The family pet turns into bloodthirsty beast, townspeople transform into a frenzied mob, and a beloved spouse becomes a psychotic killer.
The fear of apocalypse is an old subject in horror cinema, but an apocalypse doesn't necessarily point to a literal physical destruction of the Earth or of human civilization. It can denote a traumatic upheaval or the re-alignment of society into something unrecognizable and frightening. It's no accident that Night of the Living Dead came along in 1968, when America was seized by a pervasive fear of open race war and of a strange counter-culture that set itself in direct opposition to the dominant ideology. There was a sense that the country was on the cusp of a violent transformation.
In the same way that Living Dead gave expression to the fears of its era, Take Shelter offers an apocalyptic scenario that seems eerily fitting for a twenty-first century of rising extremism, diminishing resources, and environmental devastation. Proximally, Curtis fears that the approaching storm from his visions will harm his family (or change them). However, beneath the surface, the storm represents a swirling mass of contemporary horrors: suicide bombings, regime changes, oil shortages, global epidemics, changing climate, tainted food. It is every looming upheaval that is beyond an ordinary American's ability to control. Moreover, given that Nichols quite deliberately sets his film in a small-town Heartland setting, the storm carries an undercurrent of Red State anxiety about the racial, religious, and cultural composition of the country. The apocalypse becomes a demographic one: What will happen when we wake up one day and discover that They—the Muslim, the immigrant, the liberal, the gay—outnumber Us?
The film's Dream Reality is so successful at evoking these anxieties precisely because it does not overstate them. Curtis' visions function first and foremost as a source of sensory terror. They have a weird vagueness about them that seems to suggest a bad dream. There is that dream-like sense of beginning in media res, and a heightened awareness that something is wrong. There is a plausibility to the surrealism: I dreamed that I was standing in the kitchen. And you were there. And you were soaking wet. And you didn't say anything. And there was a knife on the counter. And you turned towards the knife... The design of Curtis' dream sequences creates a very disturbing psychological effect, as it taps directly into the viewer's first-hand experience with nightmares. There is no need to evoke any of the specific fears noted above, because the Dream Reality contains all of them. Curtis' visions are simply about the World Going Bad. The normal becomes abnormal, and chaos reigns.
If Take Shelter were merely a story about an evil storm that strikes a small town, it would likely still be an effective horror film. What makes it a great film is how Nichols relates Curtis' Dream Reality to his Waking Reality. The storm is not a threat that roams about physically menacing the characters, as a normal horror movie monster would. Instead, it is locked inside Curtis' mind, a phantom threat (although it feels all-too-real to Curtis). This returns the film to the territory of a mundane small-town American drama, and something closer to reality, where fear itself is the enemy. It's not the storm that tears Curtis' family, work, and life apart, but his own fear, and the succession of poor decisions he makes when he tries to confront that fear on his own.
While the terrors of the Dream Reality are apocalyptic in nature, the terrors of the Waking Reality are more intensely personal. Take Shelter is in large part a tragedy about a person who is losing their mind... and is perfectly, horribly conscious of it. This is a fairly unique thing in cinema. There are numerous films featuring unreliable protagonists whom the viewer follows down the rabbit hole of madness, but most of these hapless characters are not aware of what is happening to them. Moreover, in most instances, there is some horrible trauma or stress that is the cause of the character's break with reality. Darren Aronofsky's recent film Black Swan provides an interesting contrast. That film presents a portrait of a mind cracking under the colossal pressures of rivalry and perfectionism at the most elite levels of professional ballet. Needless to say, those are pressures that most viewers will never experience. In comparison, Curtis in Take Shelter appears to be an easygoing working-class family man. He has no particular strains beyond those experienced by just about every member of America's Ninety-Nine Percent. Which is, of course, part of the genius of Nichols' script: It uses Curtis' mental illness to delve into a host of everyday anxieties that are all-too-familiar. The threat of the evil storm in the Dream Reality is still present, but layered over it are the much more immediate and relatable threats of the Waking Reality.
Curtis fears that his own mind has become a kind of runaway genetic locomotive, barreling towards a future in which he is transformed from a provider into a burden. Suddenly, everything that was good and decent in his life, everything that his friend Dewart claimed to envy, is under threat. If he is indeed losing his mind, how long will he be able to keep his job? If he loses his job, he loses his health insurance, and his daughter Hanna loses her chance at hearing. If his mental condition gets bad enough, if they find him wandering the streets like his mother, will his wife Samantha be able to support him? Curtis' psychiatric crisis throws into relief the instability just beneath the surface of the American Dream, taking the film beyond the shapeless fears of the Dream Reality and into to the more urgent fears of being one paycheck away from calamity.
And yet despite Curtis' awareness that his frightening visions are most likely the product of chemical imbalances in his brain, he can't stop preparing for the storm. He knows that building a shelter for a storm that is not real is the textbook definition of crazy, he knows it makes no sense, but he still feels compelled to do it. This, ultimately is the primal fear at the root of the Waking Reality: the fear of the disintegration of the rational mind, of losing one's identity to biological forces that are beyond one's control. It's the fear of madness, but also the fear of addiction, the fear of dementia—any condition which in which the mind is in revolt, in which we cannot explain why we do the things we do. It's the terror of becoming That Guy, the one who used to be so normal... Take Shelter provides us with a rare reverse-shot glimpse of That Guy. It is the untold story behind the gossip that most people in town will hear, about the night that Curtis lost it at the Lion's Club supper.
The essential tragedy of Take Shelter is that Curtis' behavior is both perfectly reasonable and utterly foolish, often at the same time. If one examine Curtis' actions dispassionately, they make a kind of pragmatic sense in light of his visions. He reacts reasonably to the information he has at his disposal. When he dreams that the family dog attacks him, he responds in the waking world by fencing the dog up in the backyard, and then eventually giving it away. Although Curtis' visions are probably a figment of his own diseased mind, his behavior is not erratic. He's not running around with tinfoil on his head and his pajamas on backwards. He's preparing as best he can for a storm he doesn't fully understand. It's hard to argue with his logic. To wit: His dreams suggest that something about the storm will drive people to homicidal madness. Maybe it's something in the air? Better get some gas masks.
However, even assuming that Curtis' visions are real omens, and not just short-circuiting neurons, his is a pitiable situation. Nichols is an Arkansas native, and both this film and his first feature, Shotgun Stories, reveal that he has a keen grasp of the small-town milieu and all its corresponding psychological baggage. He depicts a good-natured but essentially blinkered and reactionary society that is ill-prepared for one of its own to suddenly begin behaving in a way that falls outside accepted norms. The film observes a rural America with little infrastructure for people suffering from mental illness, a feeble safety net for families suddenly hobbled by an incapacitated breadwinner, and zero patience for dealing with anyone who strays outside a narrow range of tolerated behavior.
Curtis's isolation from those around him marks Take Shelter as part of a larger tradition of independent American films about people with an intense, fearful worldview that separates them from loved ones and members of the community. Other entries in this sub-genre include: Bill Paxton's Frailty, about a blue-collar single father who believes he must slay demons concealed in human form; Todd Haynes' Safe, about a housewife who is obsessed with the idea that environmental chemicals are eroding her health; and Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, about a woman whose fanatical belief in Armageddon leads her to reject both life and God. All of these films share a mood of intense alienation, where a Cassandra-like character finds themselves the lonely steward of a terrible truth.
No matter how unfortunate Curtis' situation is, no matter how unsympathetic the townsfolk who surround him are, some of the blame for his plight rests with Curtis himself. He permits his own dumb Midwestern pride to overrule his common sense, and as a result he stubbornly (and disastrously) conceals his fears and his plans from his wife and friends. He refuses to explain himself, to admit to the diagnosis that he freely makes to the psychologist at the clinic, or even speak the word: schizophrenia. Admittedly, he's been dealt a lousy hand, in the form of a genetic predisposition to mental illness. However, he allows his fear of that illness to cloud his judgment, and makes some spectacularly bad decisions that reverberate and cause even more hardship for him. The viewer sympathizes with Curtis, because they have seen the horrifying visions he's seen, but they cannot excuse his mistakes: his deceptions, his abuse of trust, and his systematic alienation of everyone around him. This, of course, is why fear is the mind-killer: It makes a bad situation even worse.
And what of the film's final scene? What does it mean? Were Curtis' visions real prophecies all along? Was he ever really insane? Does this mean that he's been proven right in the end? Digging too deeply into the intellectual meaning of the film's final moments upsets what is essentially a perfect emotional conclusion to Curtis' story. The true narrative climax of the film occurs earlier, in the storm shelter. Curtis finally confronts the crippling fear inside him with Samantha's help and opens the door to face whatever is on the outside. The tornado may not have done any significant damage, but that's beside the point: The intensity of the storm shelter sequence stems from the viewer's shared terror with Curtis down there in the dark. At that moment, it's unclear which would be worse: To find an apocalyptic landscape behind that door, or nothing unusual at all? By the final scene on the beach, the film has already offered that essential moment of narrative tension and release. Curtis has changed, because he's let Samantha into that most shameful place and faced his fear with her aid. He's no longer alone. There's horror in the realization that the apocalypse actually is coming, but there is also relief and resolve. David Wingo's magnificent, rising score in that final scene reveals as much. It's a moment of power and perfection, reflected in the simple fact that Samantha only has to utter one word, "Okay." That one word says so much: “I see it too. I believe you. I'm with you. We're ready for what's coming.”