A lot of movies thrive on ambiguity. From characters with questionable motives to the fluid, elusive nature of “the truth,” movies make a habit of using the concept of subjective perspective as a means of creating conflict and interest. However, most movies just live off the mystery, never seeking to explore the meaning behind it, or what that lack of clarity means to the world or characters at large.
Take Shelter exists as an exercise in trying to see how far this manipulation of tone and perspective can be taken as a means of emotional storytelling. Its story depends on the constant questioning of the sanity and actions of its protagonist, Curtis, but does not make that question the sole crutch of the story. Instead, the film uses this uncertainty as a means of exploring a stranger, more elemental question regarding life, faith, and commitment. This narrative of uncertainty begins its life as a mystery before morphing into something much more deep, meaningful, and complex.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is an Ohio sand miner, spending his days working hard in the dirt and the dust to make a life for him and his family. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) sells hand-embroidered pillows and apparel on the weekends at a flea market to make enough money to take them on a yearly vacation to the beach. Their daughter is deaf, but may be eligible for a cochlear implant. Yet in spite of the hardships, their lives are full of love and happiness. Lately, however, Curtis has been plagued with nightmares involving an apocalyptic storm and mobs of raving, violent people.
Curtis at first simply wakes up startled and breathless, but as the visions become more violent they begin to affect his waking life. After dreaming about being attacked by his dog, Curtis fences the animal in the back yard. Then he notices the neglected storm shelter in his back yard, and starts to think about ways to improve it. The work distances him from his wife, who struggles to understand his changes in behavior.
The plot, as it stands, is not so different from the plot of many movies. It’s sort of a dark, twisted version of Field of Dreams, with the stakes being much higher and the possible backlash much more intense. Curtis’s mother developed paranoid schizophrenia when she was in her thirties, having to be put into an assisted living home. The fear of losing his family in the same way, of having to leave them behind as he descends into madness, locks Curtis into a cycle of solitary worry, lies, and half-truths.
What is different and interesting about the way this film plays this plot, though, is the manner in which Curtis’s mania toys with the audience’s allegiance. We begin the film on Curtis’s side, believing – as he believes – that the world is on the brink of destruction. There seems to be no other reason that a man would be so moved and disturbed by his dreams. When the idea is floated that he might be crazy we see this for what it is, the obvious reaction of a world that can’t see what he sees, and refuses to believe the one person who really knows what is going on. But as time goes on and Curtis allows his visions to ferment and his reclusive nature to consume him, we begin to grow concerned.
A true element of horror, which many films seem to be neglecting recently, is the fear of something bad happening to someone we empathize with. Curtis is such an earnest man, such a committed father and husband, that we fear both the possibility of the world’s end and the possibility of Curtis’s mental illness separating him from his family. You know that a movie is something special when you end up rooting for the end of the world, and that is exactly what happens here. The fear that Curtis is right is only eclipsed by the fear that he is wrong.
This is the kind of complexity and heart that many films today lack. The existential anguish of Curtis’s position, and by extension the audience’s sympathies, creates a moving, intense viewing experience. Curtis deserves vindication, deserves to be proven right or wrong, deserves to be with his wife and daughter. The slow, measured build up of tension and fear and concern is almost unbearable, and whichever terrible eventuality occurs, we know it is better than the uncertainty.
While the film does suffer from some sluggishness in your second act, but between the subtle, measured intricacies of its story and tone, and the skill of its actors – who create layered, empathetic characters – it is still well worth seeing. Director Jeff Nichols, evinces a skill and restraint that makes me eager to see what else he is capable of.