Monday 13 November 2017

We Don't Go Back #70: Take Shelter (2011)

It's been a couple of weeks  since I've posted. Life got a bit complex, in ways both good and bad, and I needed to take a while to get back on the horse. So I'm starting again, now that half term is done, and, well start as you mean to go on, right? Let's talk about something scary.

The things that most frighten us are often very personal. I'm not going to bare my heart here, but I think it's fair to say that, while it's not really what I'd call a horror film, I found Jeff Nichols's 2011  Take Shelter terrifying.

Rain like fresh motor oil.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a blue-collar worker somewhere in Ohio. He's happily married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain, one of the busiest women in film) and they are parents to Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. And it's a good life – early on in the film Curtis's pal Dewart (Shea Whigham) says as much in exactly those words. But while it's a precious thing to be grateful for what you have, the goodness in our lives is so very fragile, and catastrophe is in some sense always nearby, waiting to overturn everything.

With Curtis, this comes when he begins to experience troubling visions: a storm where the rain is viscous and brown "like fresh motor oil"; birds flocking in weird formations in the sky; a tornado in the distance. He dreams of his beloved dog going crazy and savaging him, and feels the marks on his arm all day. He imagines the people of the town turning on him. He experiences his home swept away into the sky.

Curtis is afraid to talk about it, and to start with you think that's because he's, you know, a guy, that he's been brought up to be self-sufficient, that this is what men do, and it's sort of frustrating. It made me intensely uncomfortable to watch: just tell her, already. 
A good life.
But then it becomes apparent that Curtis has another reason for being reluctant to talk about his mental health: his mother has been institutionalised since he was a teenager.

And here's where Take Shelter moves into realms that are all too familiar. Curtis hits the books. By the time he sees a professional, he's ready with an entirely plausible self-diagnosis. But at the same time, he is still helplessly following his compulsions, so that he makes his dog live outside in a fenced pound, and then, when his brother visits to offer a sort of intervention, gives the dog away to his brother. The driving fear that causes him to install a tornado shelter in his back yard puts his finances in danger, loses him friends, and ultimately risks the very catastrophe that it is designed to prevent, since by borrowing a backhoe from work for what is a personal project, he loses his job.

And I suppose in some ways that's a uniquely American catastrophe, since losing a job in most other developed countries wouldn't mean that the surgery that will give Hannah hearing is jeopardised, or that professional help for Curtis becomes almost unreachable (although the British government is doing its level best to bring us down to the American standard right now). But it's nonetheless a relatable one. We're all only one stroke from disaster.
There's a storm coming!

By following the compulsion to protect his family, Curtis loses his most immediate  means to protect them, his financial security. Curtis's terror of friends turning hostile loses him the support of the community. His fear that his dog will turn on him loses him his dog. And in some ways Take Shelter's climax and denouement plays into that, delivering a powerful metaphor.

The Roman historian Velleius wrote that no one is crushed more swiftly than the the man who fears nothing. Take Shelter offers a corrective to that, instead telling us that fear is destructive. And as a folk horror, Curtis's visions create the happening, almost.

It's an amazing finish to the film, delivering just enough of the supernatural to make you doubt, make you think: Curtis predicts disaster, and like the plague crows and prophets of history, engenders the suspicion that when the disaster comes, it's his fault.

In a perhaps less thoughtful film, Curtis would lose everything. He doesn't. Samantha, although she expresses frustration and fear at his weird behaviour, sticks by Curtis all the way through. She loves him, and her love fixes nothing, but is nonetheless Curtis's hope of escape. She performs the emotional heavy lifting of their marriage; she is the strength he needs. She wants to understand. And when she does, she stands by her husband and gives him the resources to come through.

But then there's that ending.

Take Shelter is a really marvellous film, both as a piece of folk horror and as a film that has something worthwhile to say. Michael Shannon's performance here (as in William Friedkin's Bug, which is also in the queue to talk about) is perfectly pitched, sympathetic and frightening in how intense it is. Jessica Chastain, too, delivers a fine performance, a million miles from the over-the-top Gothic stylings of Crimson Peak. Every shot in the film is beautifully composed. Everything counts.
You have to open the door.

This is by no means the scariest film I have seen recently, not by a long way. But it is the film that scared me more than pretty much any film I've seen in the last two years, and that's because, I admit it, disaster has been at the edge of my life for a long time now, and the fears of a man of about my age with a family and a community are fears I can see, fears I can identify with.