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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Mental illness explored
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Thursday, October 27,2011

Mental illness explored

By Dave Taylor

Something really bad is coming, an impending apocalypse, and only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see it. His mom was institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 10, however, so are his dreams prophetic or is he starting to lose it? This is the plot of Take Shelter.

Stuck in the chaos is his loving wife Samantha ( Jessica Chastain), who wants to support him and tries to understand what he’s going through but can’t avoid his increasingly bizarre, erratic and random behavior. When Curtis spends the money they need for their daughter’s cochlear implant on expanding their storm shelter, she leaves. But is he right? Is there a storm heading their way?

Films can get mired down in narrative backstory where passages end up boring and uninteresting, typically because the expository portions appear prior to us becoming engaged with the characters. Director Jeff Nichols nimbly avoids this time and again in Take Shelter with hints that daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) hasn’t always been deaf but with no explanation of what happened for her to lose her hearing. Her deafness is a metaphorical reflection of Curtis’ challenge with seeing and experiencing what really is happening around him rather than the troubled visions that plague him both awake and asleep.

Since film is already a dreamlike medium, there’s a self-reflective element to Take Shelter that also serves as a metaphor for the entire experience of viewing a movie. When Curtis dreams of his dog attacking him then buys a doghouse so that Red can sleep outside after having been an indoor dog his entire life, is Curtis acting with admirable forethought and caution, or is he losing the ability to differentiate between reality and his dream state? And what does that say for us, the cinematic audience, as we walk out and discuss the film with our friends?

The production team does a splendid job of evoking the rhythms and values of small-town America, where corn fields come up to the edges of backyards that themselves flow into one huge park-like space undivided by fences or property borders. Driveways are dirt, cars park on the lawn, and people do yard work and retrieve newspapers in bathrobes. Family dinners happen with a palpable weight of obligation, and when everyone sits around and glowers at each other, it’s just another Sunday.

One of the most dramatic scenes takes place at a church brunch where Curtis’ best friend and solid supporter Dewart (Shea Whigham) is upset to see him, and they get into a scuffle. Curtis cracks and it’s the only time in the movie where we see him angry at his situation. Is he going crazy, damn it, or is something really, really bad heading their way and he’s the only person who can see it and the only person who is taking steps to protect his family from the impending storm?

There’s much to like in this quiet, powerful film that addresses the challenging subject of mental illness in a fresh and interesting manner. I would recommend it strongly if not for the ending, which throws into question the entire narrative journey and any conclusions that the viewer has made regarding Curtis, his visions, and whether or not there is indeed a storm coming.

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