Every month, in the Close Reading column we will breakdown a specific scene from a film that demands closer analysis. This month, Andrew dives into Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter.
By Andrew LeMay
Almost all of my early experiences with film were pretty traumatic. Typically, these ordeals arose when I tagged along with my dad and older brother to the movies; it just so happened that many of these films also scarred me for life. The first movie I can recall seeing in a theater was David Douglas’ IMAX feature The Fires of Kuwait, which consists mostly of images of hundred-foot-high pillars of flame roaring up from Kuwaiti oil fields set aflame by the retreating Iraqi army during the Gulf War. My five-year old brain couldn’t exactly process that beyond pure terror at the time.
But the movie that did the most damage to my psyche was undoubtedly Twister. Watching two hours of storm chasers hunting down increasingly destructive tornadoes (while also growing up in Arkansas, where these storms are a common occurrence) left me petrified of severe weather. The weather radio in our house became a particular source of fear for me; I would even tell my parents that I hated the word “county” because the voice on the radio would call out “Saline county, Pulaski county, etc.,” whenever there was a storm warning.
So that being said, I feel a sort of kinship with Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), the protagonist of Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter. Or, at the very least, I can see where his fears are coming from. Curtis, a construction worker in rural Ohio with a steady middle class life, starts to have visions and nightmares. He sees massive storms pouring down thick, orange rain “like fresh motor oil,” and flocks of black birds that move like swarms of bees. These dreams often end with someone close to him, such as his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) or his coworker Deward (Shea Wiggam), attacking Curtis or his deaf daughter, Hannah.
As these hallucinations begin to wear down Curtis’ sanity, he quickly sets out to prepare for the apocalypse while also seeking out medical counsel. Knowing his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia around his age, Curtis begins speaking with a counselor at the clinic. In one of his first meetings with her, he admits that his visions are in fact hallucinations; he seems to be fully aware of his mental state and seeking whatever help he may need.
But despite Curtis’ tenuous grasp on his sanity, the delusions ultimately win out. He starts adding on to his storm shelter, transforming it into more of nuclear fallout bunker. He takes out a bank loan to pay for the materials, and uses equipment from his job to dig out the space for the shelter. These decisions put his family in financial peril, since the loan has a high interest rate and the use of the equipment results in his firing. In the already economically distressed times of the early 2010s, Curtis’ decisions stress his family and community life to their limits. And his visions only grow darker.
One scene in particular captures Curtis’ terror and isolation during his struggle with these nightmares. Following one of his daughter’s sign language classes, we follow Curtis as he drives home with his wife and daughter sitting in darkness of the backseat. Curtis begins to warily look out the front window as we faintly hear the rumble of thunder from outside; the film’s omnipresent eerie soundtrack swells as well, intensifying the fear clearly written across Curtis’ face.
As Curtis slows down to pull his car over, we see the view of the highway looking out the windshield. The only light comes from his car’s headlamps and the faint glow of streetlights further down the road. The image of this dark, apparently empty road gives the scene a sense of ghostly calm, as if we are in calm before a truly horrifying storm.
Once he has parked on the side of the road, Curtis exits to gaze over at the sight that had distracted him: a massive electrical storm in the distances, with spiderwebs of blue lightning crackling across the sky and piercing the ground. In the foreground, we also see a large “For Sale” in front of this storm. Curtis looks on in awe, before finally breaking the silence as he asks no one, “Is anyone seeing this?”
This scene fascinates me for a few reasons. For one, there’s not much evidence that it is a hallucination. Unlike his other visions, there is nothing distinctly apocalyptic or unnatural about this storm: no oily rain, no demonic birds. It’s simply a powerful lightning storm, something not at all out of place on a Midwestern summer night.
The presence of the sign that reads, “For Sale- Prime Commercial,” is also both bizarre and very fitting. As much as Take Shelter is the story of one man’s struggle with visions of disaster, it is also a story that takes place in the wake of a real disaster: the 2008 financial crisis. Throughout the film, we hear mention of how hard times are, and how lucky Curtis and his family have been to stay out of debt and to have such great health insurance through Curtis’ job. Every decision the family makes is made with the knowledge that financial ruin may not be far off for them. So the juxtaposition of what Curtis perceives to be an apocalyptic storm with an image of property for sale makes one think: are these visions just a symptom of Curtis’ economic anxiety, or is he the only one who sees a natural progression from economic apocalypse to a truly biblical one?
Curtis’ isolation in this scene shows us that, whether or not what he sees in the distance is real, no one else is around to listen to him; no one really is “seeing this.” Even in something as banal as a summer thunderstorm, Curtis perceives oncoming doom, what he later describes to his friends and neighbors as a “storm like you have never seen.” And as anyone who watches the film through to the end sees, he is ultimately proven right about this. But the real terror in Take Shelter does not stem from our fear that Curtis’ visions will come true. Instead, it comes from the look in the man’s face as he stares into the dark at unimaginable devastation, thinks of his family, and realizes there is nothing he can do.