Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Prophecy & Reality: Take Shelter

Writer and director of Take Shelter Jeff Nichols has landed a popular film: not only are both leading actors, Michael Shannon as Curtis and Jessica Chastain as his wife Sam, both up for best acting awards throughout the film world, but on Rotten Tomatoes, critics have approved the film at a 92% rating and viewers have given it an 85% approval rating. Why?
One critic's review said that we all feel something is about to happen, whether it's with the economy or some storm, there's a general feeling of foreboding doom. How many end-of-the-world prophecies have there been for 2011, for example? I think there's another one scheduled for December 20. The economy (which is pointed out in the film) is certainly not improving, here or globally, but like the (maybe infamous) Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter moves you seamlessly from dream into reality, so you can't be sure if Curtis is sleeping or if even something as simple as a rain drop is bearing ominous warnings.
Curtis' wife Sam and daughter Hannah. Hannah is deaf, but because Curtis ' company has great insurance, she's going to get an operation which will give her an implant so she can hear; when Curtis looses his job, he looses the insurance. Hannah's deafness is, as I have suggested before, similar to The Artist in using sound as a means of communicating, not sound to make words, but the presence or absence of sound itself as a means of communicating symbolically. Hannah being unable to speak mirrors Curtis being unable to tell people what he is experiencing, even as he is trying to tell them. In this scene pictured above, Sam and Hannah have just arrived home, discovering Curtis has borrowed equipment from his work (for which he will be fired) to dig an underground tornado shelter in their Ohio home; not having discussed it with his wife, she's furious, especially discovering that he got the roughly $8,000 to dig it from a home-improvement loan when they were going to be saving up for Hannah's surgery. These are the values and decisions demonstrating how important this storm shelter is for Curtis, the incredible inner need he has for building it and stocking it.
The two most effective tools employed by Take Shelter is nature (storms and animals) and Curtis' dreams. Due to the excellence of the editing and writing, we are never sure, for example in the opening scene, if Curtis has actually seen it raining motor oil or if he was just in the shower and his yellow-ish liquid soap became a mis-placed symbol. The beauty of this in art is called, technically, "ambiguity," and the reason it's okay not to push the boundaries and make (I should say, rather "force") an interpretation is because some things just cannot be understood and some things/symbols have more power in their mystery rather than in how we explain them. One of my favorite movies, Pan's Labyrinth of 2006, is a virtuoso of ambiguity; we can actually come close to "being with" what the film communicates in not trying to ruthlessly decode everything than we could be twisting and turning the words and scenes to yield a satisfying conclusion, but that doesn't mean that we can't find reason, too.
At the breakfast table. There is an interesting play on words in Curtis "signing" I Love You to Hannah: like the popular 70's song, "Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign" Curtis sees signs in everything that a storm is coming, and it will be catastrophic, and his love for Sam and Hannah compels him to prepare his family for it, like Noah building the Ark. Why is there a storm coming? The film never says, just that it is.
Because we can't really be sure if Curtis sees things, hallucinates them or dreams them, let's start with the dream interpretations I am confident I can produce. Curtis has a dream that he's cleaning up a trash pile in the backyard; as he watches a super cell thunderstorm forming a tornado, his dog Red barks angrily, snaps the rope tying him to a tree and bites his right arm so savagely that it's half-way through the next day before the pain from this "dream" goes away. What does the dream mean?
The storm cloud Curtis watches in his dream.
The trash pile in the backyard is next to the dilapidated storm shelter that Curtis will start re-designing, but it symbolizes his inner "trash" that he's tried to throw away but has piled up instead: his mother got out of the car at the grocery one day and left 10-year-old Curtis alone; she was found a week later in Kentucky eating trash (and that's the connection with the "trash pile"); she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in assisted living. Curtis not only fears becoming like her, but he hasn't "cleaned up" the pile inside him that these memories represent. It's from this pile that Hannah had gotten a board with a nail in it and was "playing with it," fearful that she might hurt herself, Sam told Curtis to get it cleaned up. We have to recognize that on the deeper level of "family skeletons" and genetic diseases.
Curtis sitting alone in the "old storm shelter" he decides needs cleaning out and updating. One morning, he's so sick from his dreams that he doesn't go to church and takes Hannah with him to the library to check out books on mental illness (we later see him sitting in the storm shelter reading them) and the same day he takes Hannah to the grocery to buy canned goods to use in stocking the storm shelter. Like the key to the shelter which had to be "dug out" (Curtis' job is "digging" which is symbolic of the digging he must do in his mind and soul) of an old can with spare change, other keys and nick-knacks, the key to the shelter is also the key to Curtis' mind which must be sifted through all the events of the film so we can unlock what is happening to him. There is a night when tornado sirens start blowing and Curtis takes Hannah and Sam into the shelter. He fears the storm isn't over and Sam assures him it is. He gives her the key to open the shelter so they can get out but she refuses, knowing that he has to be the one to open that door. When Curtis does and they come out, you are half-way disappointed to see only some small tree branches that have been downed, and Curtis himself certainly is, having thought that this was the big storm that would justify everything he had done.
Why does Red attack Curtis?
The dog is tied with a rope to a tree; Red, we learn from Sam, has always been Curtis' dog and has always been an indoor dog. In this dream, Red symbolizes by his name Curtis' buried anger for his mother's disease and what it did to him and their family; the dog being tied to the tree is Curtis' Christian faith (they do go to church) that won't let him be angry, the Tree of the Cross keeps Curtis' anger in place so he doesn't hurt himself or someone else but doesn't really help him to cope with it, either. The breaking of the rope is the "final straw" that releases his anger that he can't control anymore. Traditionally, dogs symbolize loyalty, so it's Curtis' loyalty which is getting him in trouble and that's to his job and his wife; Red attacking his right arm means that his strength is going to be weakened by the dog attack. What causes the rope to snap? I think it's Sam telling Curtis what to do all the time. Sam is a good wife, but she's a bit bossy, and Curtis has no will of his own. Building the storm shelter is an act of self-assertion as well as self-preservation.
What I really like about Sam's character is that she sews which brings in a little extra money for the family but, above all, it symbolizes that she can "stitch things up" with Curtis in their marriage at a point when he expects her to leave him.
Let's consider another dream.
There's a storm and Curtis walks into the kitchen. A shadowy figure walks by and you have no idea who it is, and then we see Sam, drenched to the bone in her pajamas and a robe; flies are around her and behind her, on the kitchen counter is a chef's knife. She looks at it and Curtis shakes his head no. Understanding how threatening Curtis' dreams are, there is a chance of her killing him. It upsets Curtis enough that, at the next morning at breakfast, concerned about him, Sam touches his hand and he jerks back violently as if threatened and Sam knows something is wrong.
In an exact reaction against his mother's actions when she left Curtis alone in the car when he was 10, Curtis clings Hannah to him in several dreams when he fears losing her. Biologically and symbolically, she is a part of him that doesn't really have any life of his own (Hannah doesn't play with the other children the way Curtis doesn't really have any friends other then Deurt). In this scene above, Curtis saw Hannah go into the street and he runs to get her; picking her up, he sees a large formation of birds rhythmically moving together and then the storm behind him forms; the birds rush in flight at him and then start dropping dead from the sky. What do the dead birds mean? Birds are one of the particular symbols of the Holy Spirit, in this case, and with how the film sets up the scene (the birds flying in a organized pattern before they stop dropping dead) I think it really depicts society--an emphasis more on the "flocking" tendency than individuality--and the birds dropping dead symbolizes Curtis and his family falling from favor in the community because of the storm Curtis sees coming but no one else does (the storm behind him). His last name, LaForche, means "fork in the road or path" and Curtis faces that "fork" in having to choose between following his "premonitions" or society and this scene illustrates it well: before him is he and his family dying a painful social death but on the other hand is the storm he's certain will strike.
The rain drenching Sam symbolizes the "storms" which Curtis' behavior causes in town and getting him fired and this is the border-line, the ambiguous shadow-land of dream and prophecy meeting: these things haven't happened yet but it will (and there's another dream I will use to illustrate). All the things which Curtis' behavior brings about causes the storm drenching Sam; her being in her pajamas symbolizes both their intimacy ( a person doesn't go out in their pajamas) and that she has been "sleeping" to what is really going on inside Curtis. Her standing in the kitchen relates to us her role in the family as wife and mother but the knife does mean "killing" Curtis by "severing" their relationship, cutting her ties off to him by leaving him. After Curtis tells her that he has lost his job, she slaps his face, grabs Hannah and leaves. She come back later and he asks her if she's going to leave him. This is the moment when she could (in terms of the dream) pick up that knife to "kill him by leaving him" but she stays with him instead.
Sam in the insurance office finally getting the help she needs to get Hannah into the doctor to see if she qualifies for the surgery which will give her an implant so she can hear. Sam, after her initial "collapse" and anger from Curtis loosing his job, exercises the same caring love and devotion to him as Hannah when she realizes that he needs help. Sam has a habit of affectionately calling Curtis, "Baby," but that may also signify her approach to him and what she thinks he needs, maternal care, which highlights why she can be "bossy."
Another dream, which Curtis tells us, we don't actually see taking place involves Curtis' best friend Deurt. They work for a sand and gravel company that digs foundations and Curtis dreams that Deurt's face starts melting and changing and then he takes a pick and sticks it in Curtis' leg. The next day, Curtis goes to his boss and asks if Deurt could be switched to another crew; upset about the change, Deurt tells the boss that Curtis took the company's equipment to dig the new storm shelter and Curtis gets fired with Deurt getting a two-week suspension without pay. Deurt's face changing could easily be a prophecy of what happens next: at a community Lion's dinner, Deurt approaches Curtis and they get into a fight so Deurt who was his best friend is now his enemy (the face changing and melting). The pick in his leg which Curtis says Deurt stabs him with symbolizes his will being impaired ( the feet symbolize the will and our legs symbolize our "standing in society," our social standing or standing with someone) as a prophecy of his losing his job (like being stabbed in the back) and Deurt spreading stories around the community about Curtis' behavior so everyone thinks he's crazy. This turns out to be, like the other dreams, prophecy delivered through dreams, not hallucinations.
Curtis examining a storage unit like the other ones in the picture (this one, though, happens to be "red," so he's going to get the red storage unit and replace his dog Red). I think it's the next scene, Curtis fills his truck up with gas and calls his doctor who wanted him to go to Columbus to visit a psychiatrist he knew and Curtis says he doesn't think he can make that trip and wants the name of someone closer; perhaps the reason Curtis can't make that trip is because his mother had been sent to Columbus when they realized she was sick. 
Part of the mystery of the film is, "Who is it that is going to take Hannah away from him?" There are strange dark figures throughout who try to hurt him and then take Hannah. One example is a dream he has of driving his truck, Hannah in the passenger seat; its raining so hard he can't see out the windshield; suddenly a person appears in front of his truck and he swerves to miss them, violently banging his head against the steering wheel and the truck stopping. Next, someone is trying to get to him through his window and someone is lifting Hannah out of the car. The storm symbolizes the "storm" he himself is causing in his life by his actions but the foggy windshield out of which he can't see is the path he's chosen to take in building up the storm shelter (and being in the driver's seat supports that) and the wounds he gets (specifically to his head, symbolic of the governing function) illustrates for us his self-doubt of whether or not he's doing the right thing, his lack of confidence even as he can't seem to control himself and stop himself from seeing storms and working on the shelter. Hannah being taken is his mind's expression of the opposite happening to Hannah that happened to him when he was 10: his is "left" but Hannah is taken, and possibly taken away from him because he's compelled to do "crazy things" out of his love to protect her. It's a sad situation that the very thing he's doing to save her is also jeopardizing her.
As I said in the opening paragraph, Take Shelter is like Martha Marcy May Marlene in its editing style of not quite knowing if you are in a dream or "reality." It shares another similarity with the film: Curtis has a dream so disturbing he wets himself in bed. Whereas Martha seems to urinate on the dress her sister has loaned her as a sign of disrespect for her sister and material things, Curtis seems to wet the bed because of sheer fear at his dreams and what is happening to him. For example, Martha hides the soiled dress and Curtis doesn't let Sam know what happened, he washes the bed sheets himself and only tells the doctor, so both of them are hiding it but Curtis also lies to Sam and tells her that he has a sore throat (signifying his difficulty in speaking out about what is happening) and then goes to the library and gets the books on mental illness. There is a second recent film Take Shelter invokes: Paranormal Activity 3. In both films, the furniture of an entire room suddenly levitates, stays air-bound for a moment and then violently crashes back to the floor (the kitchen/dining room in Paranormal Activity 3 and the living room in Take Shelter); for Curtis, it happens in a dream when he thinks someone is trying to break in and take Hannah from him, and I think that's the clue to understanding the scene: taking Hannah from him is as violent as "uprooting" that which can't be uprooted, i.e., the furniture.
This is the big question: why does motor oil rain down during the "big storm?"
The motor oil symbolizes what is driving the storm, the problem is, when that big storm comes, at the very end of the film, they are in Myrtle Beach, hundreds of miles away from the storm shelter; so where are you going to take shelter? Curtis and Hannah play on the beach, building a sand castle; Hannah signs to him that there is a storm. Curtis stands up and looks out at the ocean and sees something the audience doesn't. Sam, who is preparing a meal indoors, steps outside and looks at the ocean while the camera holds on Sam; in the glass of the sliding doors, we see the "reflection" of a multiple vortex mega-storm coming, and Sam sees it too. Curtis takes Hannah and as they are coming inside, drops of motor oil (like the ones in the initial scene of the film) come down on Sam's hand, validating that Curtis' premonition has come to pass. But what does it mean? I normally don't include trailers for other films in a post, however, Take Shelter makes a point of removing the family from Ohio to Myrtle Beach and of showing the storm forming over the Atlantic Ocean. It's possible that it is from across the ocean that the "storm will come" and "oil" will be the driving force of that storm. In this trailer for the upcoming Act of Valor, an elite team of Navy Seals goes on a mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA agent who was penetrating a jihad cell and they realize there is a major attack being planned on the United States:
I don't want to limit the possibility of understanding what the "storm brewing" is about or unnecessarily link it to the war on terrorism that has suddenly ended (we do see Curtis filling up his pick-up but that's while he's making the call to his doctor telling him he can't make it to Columbus to see the psychiatrist; I have to admit that I was paying more attention to the conversation than I was the price of gas and that's exactly what I should have been paying attention to); because we see the storm in the glass doors, we are invited to "open ourselves" up and "reflect" on what the problems are in the world and when we do that, our interpretation of the film will say more about us than what storm is brewing. This is part of ambiguity and how it can be creatively employed in a film to truly make it a social document which reflects us more than the film makers. Perhaps, Take Shelter is really asking why, in 2011, have there been so many end-of-the-world prophecies and what does that say about us?
I have a question about a possible suicide attempt on Curtis' behalf. His doctor prescribes for him a "mild sedative" to help him sleep after Curtis confides in him about the nightmares. We see Curtis taking two pills one night (and you can't read the instruction label his hand covers it) and five or six pills another night. That night, he wakes up in a seizure, blood coming out of his mouth and Sam calls an ambulance which Curtis sends away after he comes out of his seizure. It's possible that, being sleep-deprived, Curtis thinks additional pills will give him a deeper sleep or he's actually trying to kill himself after loosing his job. This is part of the film that remains ambiguous, but after a second viewing, I might be able to pick up on something I missed earlier (knowing what to look for helps).