Take Shelter – Review and Discussion

Film: Take Shelter (2011)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Produced by: Sophia Lin, Tyler Davidson

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Music by: David Wingo

Running Time: 121 minutes

Rating: R

Note: Like any of my discussion entries, this post contains major SPOILERS.

One more 2011 film I was really itching to see was Take Shelter. A drama/thriller about a man (Michael Shannon) who experiences visions and dreams of a huge storm and impending doom, Take Shelter explores numerous themes and motifs, including communication, family dysfunction, paranoid schizophrenia, and the nature of reality. In other words, it’s my kind of movie.

Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a man in his mid-30s living in a rural Ohio town. He lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, in one of the 96 films in which she appeared in 2011) and their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. He lives a quiet, fulfilling life; as his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) remarks (I’m paraphrasing here), “You have it good, man. You have a good life. And that’s about the best compliment you can give another man.”

Soon, however, Curtis begins to experience troubling dreams and visions. His dreams see himself along with his wife and daughter being harmed in numerous ways, and he has recurring visions of a severe storm coming his way. He hears loud claps of thunder and sees huge flocks of birds fleeing when no one else does. He ultimately sees a doctor and then a counselor with whom he discusses his sufferings (which become more and more severe), but he puts off seeing a renowned psychiatrist who is too far away and costs too much money.

Curtis instead becomes obsessed with building and revamping the tornado shelter in his backyard. His strange behavior alarms his wife, and his unwillingness to communicate his issues to her creates a growing divide and dysfunction between them. We also learn that Curtis’s mother began to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia in her mid-30s — Curtis’s current age, so that and other factors make it fairly obvious that he is not in good mental health. Nevertheless, the expert way in which writer/director Jeff Nichols crafts the story of Take Shelter makes us feel like there is still something sinister approaching that will spell doom for Curtis and his family. At this point, it seems equally important that Curtis save his family from himself (by confronting his fears properly and/or getting proper treatment) as it does that he save his family from whatever storm or dark forces may be coming.

Right from the get-go, Nichols establishes the motif of communication. Curtis and Samantha use sign language to communicate with their deaf daughter; this serves as Nichols’ way of really hammering home this idea. We see that adversity, anger, and dysfunction manifest themselves when Curtis does not adequately communicate his problems with his wife. However, by the end of the film, after he has opened up to his wife, Curtis seems more poised to confront his fears, and his wife unites with him in doing this.

Curtis using sign language to communicate with his daughter. Communication was one of the film's major motifs.

This brings us to the ambiguous ending of Take Shelter, which features a series of pivotal events. First, Curtis takes his wife and daughter into the storm shelter after hearing a tornado warning siren (we are led to believe that this is real because his wife reacts to it as well, and we don’t see anything like the storm in Curtis’s visions). After a while, the storm passes, but a paranoid Curtis hesitates to open the door and exit the shelter, believing the storm is still ongoing. He seems unable to face his fear, saying to his wife that she has to open the door. But Samantha makes him do it, realizing the importance of him confronting his fear. He does so, and everything is tranquil.

I thought that the film could have ended at this point. However, we soon see Curtis with his family finally visiting the psychiatrist, who tells him that following his family’s planned beach vacation, Curtis will need hands-on treatment to combat his schizophrenia. This implies separation from his family, the one thing he was trying to keep intact. Things once again appear bleak for Curtis. But wait, there’s more…

The film’s final scene is the source of much ambiguity and numerous possible interpretations. Curtis is at the beach with his family, on the aforementioned vacation. While he is building a sand castle with his daughter, she pauses and looks into the distance at something. Curtis then looks too, and his wife sees it shortly thereafter. It is a huge storm, just like the one in Curtis’s visions. Curtis and his wife nod at each other and huddle together, apparently poised to fight through this threat. And then BOOM, cut to black, and the film is over.

The obvious questions that come up are, “Was that final vision real? After all, his wife and daughter saw the storm after not having seen it for the entire movie. But we know Curtis was mentally ill. Does that mean that despite his mental illness, there is indeed a storm coming for him, and that he was not totally insane in his thoughts and visions?”

There is no definitive way to answer these questions. They are open to any number of answers and explanations. That being said, my interpretation of the film’s ending is that the answers to these questions do not matter. You might ask me two things at this point: A) Isn’t this a cop-out response? and B) How can they not matter? To which I will answer A) No and B) Because it is what the final scene represents that means everything. Let me explain. Curtis has been struggling with mental illness. For most of the film, his problems only worsen when he tries to fight them nearly on his own, and without confiding in his wife. Finally, at the end of the film, he has confided in his wife, who gave him the initial courage to confront his fears (when he exited the shelter). Then, Curtis is finally seeking proper treatment with the psychiatrist, and his family is at his side. Even though they won’t always be physically with him during his treatment, they understand his struggles now and he has their emotional support.

Thus, the final scene (which is flawlessly delivered and features breathtaking music, for which I’m a huge sucker), to me, represents the sum of Curtis’s struggles and fears, taking shape in the form of the storm. The difference this time, however, is that his wife and daughter see it. They now are aware of and understand his fears and struggles, mainly because he finally opened up to them. The fact that they embraced in the face of the oncoming storm represents their unity in combating whatever plight might come Curtis’s way.

In this sense, the ending of Take Shelter reminded me very much of the ending of Inception (spoilers coming). The big question at the end of that film was whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was still in a dream world. But to me, that didn’t matter; he had found peace by reuniting with his children, and as long as he thought it was real, that was all that really mattered. In Take Shelter, the main takeaway is that Curtis is ready to confront his fears with his family’s support. The nature of what they are and what the potential ramifications are is unclear, but that becomes an essentially inconsequential point.

On top of Nichols’ meticulously plotted and extremely well-told story, Take Shelter benefited from standout performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. One can only hope that Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) eventually gets the public recognition he deserves, because his performance was one of the best of the year. He didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, but man, he should have. He naturally emits a feeling that something is not quite right with his character, but simultaneously, we understand that Curtis is really just a simple man with his family’s best interests at heart. He is doing everything he can to protect them, and is adamant he is right in the face of so many doubters. This of course is not the first story of a man who stands by a seemingly crazy belief amidst doubters, but Shannon’s performance and Nichols’ unique story separate this latest tale of insane-man-who-doesn’t-believe-he’s-insane.

There is also a scene where Curtis’s friend Dewart attacks him as a result of an apparent act of betrayal on Curtis’s part. Curtis then has an emotional outburst where he yells about the impending storm and demands people to answer his question of “Am I crazy??!!” Shannon delivers flawlessly in this scene, and I felt it was one of the acting highlights of the year.

Meanwhile, Chastain (The Help, The Debt, The Tree of Life) shines once again, playing Curtis’s loving but (or thus) concerned and angry wife. One of the main reasons Chastain was able to give such a good performance was because Nichols’ story and script allowed her that opportunity. Samantha was not just a stock character as the protagonist’s wife; she was an instrumental part of the story and had to convey a wide emotional range.

Take Shelter is a complex film with lots of (intentional) ambiguity, but if you like that sort of thing in movies, it’s a can’t-miss feature. Like many great movies, its depth required me to let it sink in for a little while before I realized how stellar it really was. It has all the elements of a great movie — a gripping story (though somewhat slow-developing, it gradually picks up and floors you by the end), a smart script, meticulous directing, top-notch acting, some very interesting overarching ideas, and a thought-provoking ending. Thus, it received no Oscar nominations (tsk tsk).

Now that I’ve finally seen Take Shelter, I can move forward with my Top 10 of 2011 and the inaugural Tommy Ds, both of which are coming soon. Stay tuned!

Tommy D’s Score:





3.75/4 Tommy Ds

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About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on February 28, 2012, in General Movie Discussion, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great review! Totally feel the same way

  2. I think you are wrong about the final scene for two reasons: one is that Samantha takes the money out of the cookie jar that they were saving for the vacation and secondly, in the middle of the scene Samantha sees rust colored rain fall on her outstretched hand which refers back to the opening scene where Curtis did the same thing in his driveway and it was revealed that he was dreaming.

    • You could certainly make the case that it’s all just a dream, but my point is that that question is inconsequential. The symbolic representation here is that Curtis’s family is with him because he has finally confided fully in them. That is the most important message the film is trying to convey.

      • dhales2006@hotmail.com

        I will say that I liked reading your review better than watching the movie.

        Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4GLTE smartphone

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