Friday, November 4, 2011

Take Shelter -- fear, anxiety and insanity

Director: Jeff Nichols, 2011. (R)

“Sleep well in your beds. Cause if this thing comes true, there ain’t gonna be any more.” Protagonist Curtis (Michael Shannon, Shotgun Stories) yells this, referring to the coming storm, to a group of onlookers in the most powerful scene of the film. Is he insane or prophetic?

Nichols, using lesser known actors and working with a small budget, focuses on Curtis and his family and how they are impacted by a series of dreams that plague Curtis. He works as a foreman for a sand-mining company in Ohio to provide for his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Hannah’s deafness brings stress onto the relationships and pressure on his paycheck.

When Curtis starts having dreams of an apocalyptic storm, bringing rain like motor oil, things become weird. Odd bird flock formations appear. His dog seems rabid. Strangers become violent. Is he seeing reality or is he losing his connection to reality? Curtis decides he needs to protect his family, and so begins to construct a storm shelter. But is he protecting them from the coming storm or from himself?

TAKE SHELTER movie poster imageLike his stunning debut film, Shotgun Stories, Nichols brings the story along at a slow pace, allowing the viewer the time to see inside these characters’ lives. But he doesn’t show us too much of what is happening, so we feel confused, like the main character. We can appreciate and feel what Curtis is experiencing. And with an eerie score, the anxiety is palpable.

Moreover, the acting is stellar. Shannon brings Curtis' fears to life. His craggy features and his lazy eye contribute to a stunning performance. More of a character actor than leading man, his less than handsome features play well here. And Chastain fills the shoes and skirts of his wife in much the same way that she did against Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. She is believable as a woman trying to keep her family together alongside a husband that she begins to question. Her fears come across in the little things of life, like her daughter playing outside apart from the other kids.

Anxiety and fear are two themes woven into the thread of this story. Having written this in 2008 when he was a newlywed, Nichols commented on these themes: “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. 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 the film.”

The last decade has brought enormous anxiety and fear to the world. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 set the stage, and we have seen ever-increasing threat alerts. Bombings in cities, wars in the middle east, gang violence in inner-city ghettoes bring unease and uncertainty to many. Then there are the housing and financial meltdowns we have seen in the last couple of years that have resulted in government buy-outs of staggering proportions. Such economic woes bring financial fears to families whose plans are dissolved and lost in a day, leaving unemployment and insecurity as the only apparent future. It is no surprise that Take Shelter captures the spirit of the moment. Many of us would want to build a shelter of our own to protect our families from whatever storm is coming.

Anxiety is born out of having something to lose. When we have a family and possessions we feel a need to protect. Having nothing to lose, we can fend off anxiety. But there is another way to avoid anxiety. The apostle Paul tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Regardless of the context, if we look to God and bring our worries to him, he will handle them. Jesus himself told his disciples, and hence us, “in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).

Take Shelter sets us the challenge of determining if Curtis is crazy. This is one of his fears, that he would inherit a legacy of insanity. Even Samantha begins to wonder, and in another of the film’s powerful moments she challenges Curtis to unlock the shelter and confront reality. He wants her to do it, but she insists. He must do it himself if he wishes to protect his family and face his fear.

Although some critics found the film slow, the pacing seems perfect: not too fast, but not too slow. There is enough tension to engage and enough suspense to bring us to the conclusion wondering about Curtis and his family and the storm.

The end itself has drawn differing responses. What happened? Why?

I found myself seeing in Curtis a modern-day Noah. Somehow he has been given a gift of seeing prophetically the coming storm. In Noah’s day (Gen. 6-7), God commanded the prophet to build an arc despite the fact that he lived inland and had never seen rain. His neighbors probably mocked and scorned him, thinking him crazy. But the storm was coming, and when it came he took shelter in the boat he had made. Insane or prophetic, it depends on context.

One thing is sure. The storm will come. No matter what storm it is, we can be confident if we take shelter in the right place. David tells us, “I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm” (Psa. 55:8). And where is that shelter? David tells us in another of his psalms, “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psa. 61:4). There is only one true shelter and it is in the Lord: “in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling” (Psa. 27:5). Are you ready for the coming storm?

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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