Mental Wellness in Movies: Take Shelter

Take Shelter - Strange Matter Films - movie poster - from

Someone you dearly love has a tremendous burden they can’t bring themselves to tell anyone about. Do you know how to help?

Take Shelter narrates a man’s terrifying visions of a forthcoming storm while showing how his well-meaning but irresponsible “preparations” threaten to tear apart his life and his loving family. It is a difficult movie to watch, but it is every bit as necessary and valuable as it is disturbing.

Always work toward understanding.

Standing outside his home, Curtis LaForche looks onward at a meteorological disaster quickly heading his way, and in a matter of seconds he’s completely soaked with rain. The rain isn’t made out of water; it looks more like motor oil. Life goes on as usual: his wife Samantha and young daughter Hannah show up for breakfast, the mother prepares for incoming visitors, and the otherwise stressed father heads off to work. The camera pans up, showing a calm blue sky.

Take Shelter takes a very leisurely pace at first: Curtis works outdoors with heavy machinery (his wife makes and sells her own goods), so he and his coworkers have to be careful of rain–within reason. One of Sam’s visitors complains about her own husband Dewart, who works with Curtis. Hannah is deaf, and she doesn’t really play much with other children. Another tremendous storm comes, the visiting family heads home, and Sam and Hannah are alone at home again. The little girl is on a couch staring outside in the rain, and her mother shows her how to sign “S-T-O-R-M” and its shorthand. The story is given in small pieces without exposition, which feels natural but can also come across as sluggish until important moments and details begin to arrive.

Take Shelter - Strange Matter Films - family - from

Even facial expressions are treated with reverence by the actors here.

Curtis begins having a series of increasingly intense dreams, such as his dog viciously attacking him (which causes him real pain that lasts through the next day) or the storm causing psychotic effects that result in him and his daughter being assaulted and kidnapped. The young girl delivers a fantastic and far too convincing performance for her age. These dreams and their daytime counterparts bring more and more negative effects on their bearer’s ability to carry out the minor details of his life, resulting in frustration for all around him.

This film’s central make-or-break feature is its main character’s continual struggle to open up about his private dilemma. It takes much of the film’s running time for him to even tell his hard-working but profoundly agonized wife about his troubles; she takes them seriously, and it’s a welcome first step on her husband’s part, but too much damage has already been done even by that point. The story takes a bloat-inducing concept and makes it feel believable; I wouldn’t expect talking about such an unconventional problem to be easy for anyone, and the movie does a good job of creating its own tension from a blend of unease and excitement about what will happen next.

What does it mean to be safe?

Take Shelter - Strange Matter Films - Curtis and his daughter - from

Much of the drama in this film is given context by Curtis spending massive amounts of money to create an elaborate storm shelter on his property, against his wife’s will and without her knowledge. They have other financial obligations to take care of anyway, with a cochlear-implant surgery having been scheduled for their daughter. She, her mother, and most other characters don’t receive a lot of individual development, but they are kept distinct through their personalities and their widely varying means of responding to Curtis’ bizarre and potentially dangerous plans. One of my favorite details is in how devout Samantha really is–her strong faith is clear to see in all of the few scenes it’s depicted in, going from prayers over meals to being made manifest in her continual desire to stay with her husband no matter what happens.

One of the movie’s most distinctive traits lies in how it continually removes the line between fantasy and reality, such that any sequence of events depicted feels real even whether or not it ultimately is. This really helps the viewer get inside the main character’s head when even the most horrific outcomes feel not only possible but altogether probable, and the concept reminds me of the risks that films like Moon and Inception took, if scaled up. Are Curtis and his family really in danger? If so, from what cause? The story’s refusal to make itself clear to the audience can become a little difficult to relate to, but this movie takes the ingredients for a B-grade disaster film and places the emphasis instead on how its imperfect-but-trying people do their best to relate to one another.

Protecting people, even if from themselves, should be for theirs and others’ well-being.

Take Shelter - Strange Matter Films - storm - from

If you’ve ever seen this in person, you know it’s nothing like watching the news.

The film’s pacing greatly picks up in its second half as more characters get the chance to be involved in Curtis’ life, and while the story never becomes “quick,” the steady drip of important plot scenes and events starts to feel more rewarding for the viewer’s patience. Beyond the few jump scares in the beginning, Take Shelter entrusts much of its uncomfortable atmosphere to its characters. The story becomes a surreal but inspiring take on love and commitment where ‘marriage’ is treated as a mutual journey and not a contract or convenience, even when things go deeply wrong and answers aren’t easy to find. Sam doesn’t understand many things about her husband, but she refuses to give up on him for any reason. This allows the wonderful Jessica Chastain, who was also in The Help, to fully exercise her acting talents and to remain convincing no matter how much emotion a scene calls for.

Take Shelter is not a “fun” or standard horror thriller, but it is a deeply meaningful one whose conflicts are fueled by things much more ordinary than demonic possession (on a side note, if you do want to see those themes given an approach that’s as much about science as about faith, I heartily recommend 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose), resulting in a story that for all its unusual pretenses often hits very close to home. There’s little to say about the simple narrative or its straightforward yet rather unnatural delivery, but there is one scene toward the end of the film that validates and somehow makes beautiful every ounce of waiting that the audience and Curtis’ friends and family have had to do.

The storm shelter deserves to be viewed as metaphor. Throughout the film, Curtis physically and emotionally isolates himself as deeply from friends and family as he can manage, to no end. Maybe a storm will come, and maybe it won’t, but he won’t have to deal with internal and external “storms” without the help of others. And that is how it should be for all of us.

Conclusion: Love really is an open door.

No one should have to suffer alone. Take Shelter is an unusual and rarely pleasant film to sit through, but its climax is one of the most powerful and life-affirming things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The story and setting feel like a means to an end (even if it was worth it), but the movie delivers on its premise better than I felt the still worthwhile Silver Linings Playbook did.

The performances from the three members of the central family are as fantastic as can be imagined, and the ending’s insistence on being ambiguous provides a bitter-tasting but welcome challenge for the viewer. There’s not a lot of “objectionable” content here, with about half a dozen F-words, some S-uses and abuses of God’s name, and there’s little innuendo or violence outside of one bloody scene; that being stated, the movie may hold the most interest for mature audiences with a taste for the unconventional and a desire to care for others in areas beyond just physical health. The film is not a complex one, but sometimes the simplest moments and themes are the ones that are the clearest to see right beside us. Any one of us may need understanding, and any one of us just might be the one to give it. Open the door.

Image credits (property of Strange Matter Films)

Movie postersource
Curtis and Samanthasource
Father and daughtersource


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