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Take Shelter is a terrifying, uncomfortable meditation on family in the time of Trump

How a five-year-old movie about anxiety feels more necessary than ever

Take Shelter - Michael Shannon
A man is tormented by visions from his mental illness in 2011’s Take Shelter.
Sony Pictures Classics

We never learn what exactly it is that Curtis sees in 2011’s Take Shelter, a movie that’s never been more relevant.

The young father, with a decent job in construction complete with decent insurance, has visions of clouds of birds in an erupting sky. His nightmares of being attacked by his dog are so pervasive that he feels the pain from the bite for the rest of the day. He hallucinates faceless men pulling his daughter from his car. A form outside the window tries to break in and, for a brief, terrifying moment, all the furniture in his house levitates.

But this is not a supernatural drama. It’s a pastoral tragedy.

“I still take off my boots so I don’t wake her,” Curtis says to his wife, Samantha, as he stands in his daughter’s doorway in the middle of the night. He has the awed face of a father that’s familiar to anyone who has watched their child sleep.

“I still whisper,” Samantha responds in a low voice. They are holding each other in the dark. Their daughter’s deafness is never treated as a crisis or a defect; it’s something that is bringing them together as they try to give her the best possible life.

Curtis is that rare thing in modern pop culture: a modern blue-collar man trying to do the right thing. Samantha isn’t the stereotypical pop culture wife who stands between her husband and the things we know he must do; instead, she’s the audience surrogate who wants to help Curtis while knowing that his condition is putting their child’s well-being at risk.

In one scene, Curtis is exasperated by not having time to shower before going to his daughter’s school, and is acutely aware of the mud on his shoes in the midst of cleaner and perhaps more attentive parents. He jokes about his smell instead of getting angry at the impossible situations in which he finds himself.

The family has issues, but they’re getting by. They love each other, and defuse tense situations with jokes and care. Disagreements that lesser films would turn into shouting matches are instead efficiently handled by a relationship that is accustomed to hardship and trying times. Curtis loses his patience, but is just as quick to apologize. Samantha is likewise capable of standing up for herself when his anger is out of place.

In another moment he’s told the $47 for a prescription is the copay at the pharmacy, and there’s a quiet moment of desperation as he pulls out the cash. He later spends money he doesn’t have on a gas mask, asking if they come in children’s sizes. He throws the piece of survival equipment into his truck in disgust. He knows his daughter needs medical care. He’s scared of what he sees in his visions. The tension between those two realities is, for him, irreconcilable, especially as it proves impossible to share his terror with others.

He spends even more money on a shipping container and borrows equipment from work to bury it in his backyard. He is ultimately fired for doing so, and his friend covering for him was given two weeks of unpaid “vacation” for the favor. This leads to a confrontation where Curtis’ delusions become impossible to ignore.

There is a heartbreaking scene where Curtis explains his family’s history to a social worker.

“I don’t know my mother’s symptoms,” he says, his jaw working. “I was just 10. My brother was 17. She just left me in the car in the parking lot of the grocery store one day and she didn’t come back. They found her a week later eating trash out of a dumpster in northern Kentucky.”

He has read books. He has taken quizzes.

“Out of the five possible symptoms needed to be diagnosed with schizophrenia ... I’ve had two,” he explains, speaking slowly. “Delusions and hallucinogens. I scored a five out of a possible 20. Schizophrenia starts at 12. I need to know what to do or what to get on to get this thing under control.”

Michael Shannon’s face often looks like a thunderstorm that has woken up and decided to do the right thing. As an actor, he has been gifted with the manner of someone who will do impossible or brutal things for the right reasons. That mixture of vulnerability and strength is rare in male actors, and even rarer in actors who look hewn from the same stone as film noir mob enforcers.

In his visions, the rain comes down as a thick, brown sludge. Like motor oil. During an actual storm, he locks his family in his shelter and refuses to let them out. He still hears the thunder, you see. He still feels the cataclysm. His wife and child assure him the storm is over, and he offers them the key in the way an alcoholic may ask you to throw out all their whiskey. She tells him it’s something he has to do for himself. What happens next exposes the complicated heart of the movie.

“Although both my career and personal life were on a positive track, I had a nagging feeling that the world at large was heading for harder times,” director and writer Jeff Nichols wrote about the film. “This free-floating anxiety was part economic, part just growing up, but it mainly came from the fact that I finally had things in my life that I didn’t want to lose. All of these feelings filtered directly into the characters of this film.”

Take Shelter was released in 2011 to positive buzz and awards talk, but it went next to nowhere in terms of box office or mainstream trophies, although it still retains a die-hard following.

Why this matters now

The 2016 election was often described as a vote between two sides of the same coin, but there were many of us who have studied history and saw the unique threat — not only to democracy, but to the world order — that Donald Trump presented.

The past two weeks have hinted that things will likely get much worse than the pessimists have suggested. I’ve had long discussions with other liberals, in low voices, about stockpiling water or buying a gun. I’m prioritizing making sure everyone in the family has a passport.

This is what haunts Curtis through the entirety of Take Shelter. It doesn’t matter if the threat is religious or viral. What matters is the that reality that so many people have taken for granted is, in his eyes, about to end. What will replace it will be violent and unexpected. It’s not that the first day that’s the scariest; it’s what happens after that first day. But the fear driving all this is made worse by the niggling suspicion, often supported by those around you, that you’re being paranoid and everything will be fine.

“How much food do you think you’d need to live on for a week?” Curtis asks a co-worker. “To stay alive? How much do you think you’d need?” He’s sleeping better. His medication seems to be working. But ... just in case. How much food?

“I wrote Take Shelter because I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable,” Nichols wrote. “It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world. This film was a way for me to talk about that fear and that anxiety. I hope there is an answer to this feeling by the end of the film. I believe there is, and it’s the reason that this wonderful group of people came together to help me make Take Shelter.”

That was five years ago, and there is no answer. This isn’t formless existential dread anymore; we live in a time when threats of war are delivered to us through Twitter. Different branches of our government are in near revolt. A Republican official has reportedly fantasized about the armed forces killing civilians.

The sky is erupting, and the birds are in flight. Take Shelter is a prescient movie, but it is by no means comforting. It cuts to credits the moment everyone else understands that whatever’s coming, it’s here now. And may God help us all.

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