This is a movie about fearing the end of the world. It’s more about anxiety than the apocalypse. Whatever metaphors are contained in the script, the sense of impending doom is palpable, and unsettling. The whole film plays like a bad dream, where hidden meaning is secondary to throat-sucking dread. All horror films are about the same thing, but they let you off when the nightmare takes shape. In Take Shelter, fear is amorphous. We don’t know if the worst is real, or inside a man’s head. And that uncertainty is the conceit. Worry drives you mad. But worry warns you of danger too. It paralyses you even as it prompts you to act. That’s why the gift of prophesy is so alluring. Once you’re certain, you don’t feel angst.
The husband and father in Take Shelter thinks Armageddon is imminent. He sees the uncanny circling. Menacing clouds make fists overhead. In his dreams, he’s attacked by loved ones. He wakes up, and the world seems unsafe. There’s a history of mental illness in his family, but he isn’t afraid of madness. He’s afraid that he may have glimpsed the future. “A storm is coming,” he warns people, “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” The husband decides to build a haven for his family. He buys a shipping container to use as an ark. The news each day seems to warrant his suspicions. He buys gas masks and tinned food, to weather the great catastrophe. At last, when the sirens go off, he’s ready. But is he right?
I couldn’t breathe for parts of this movie. The nightmares depicted on screen are terrifying, and I felt powerless as I watched. You don’t get a reprieve, the way you do in monster movies, when the suspense is over and it’s kill or be killed. In Take Shelter, eeriness is pervasive, and indelible. The same way David Lynch scares you, not because of what you’ve seen, but the sense you’re left with. In a scene where the husband foresees his wife turn against him, director Jeff Nichols makes your stomach lurch just by showing you a knife. There is something wrong with the world in this film. Even the rain is the wrong colour in the husband’s dreams. The lack of traditional genre signposts only makes things more horrible. You’re watching a domestic drama sprout horns. The very ordinariness of this man’s existence seems to make him vulnerable. Reality warps with frightening ease.
I grant you, Michael Shannon has a face for madness. He has demons, even when he plays the good guy. It’s his eyes. They look wild. He never seems to open his mouth wide in this movie. He seems scared of what he might say. When he finally cracks, and screams his fears at his friends and neighbours, it isn’t a moment of catharsis. It’s more like he’s possessed, for a moment, by the insanity he’s tried to rein in. Fear threatens to rupture him in Take Shelter. When he has bad dreams, you see his skin stretched taut. As if a dream could rip him open. He doesn’t invite your confidence or your trust. He looks like a man who murders his family in their sleep. No matter how scary the world around him, Michael Shannon is scary too.
That’s why I say Jessica Chastain does such a great job playing his wife. She humanises her husband. When he’s coughing up blood and going into contortions, she reacts as if he’s sick, or dying. She responds out of love, proving he must be worth loving. Theirs is a marriage you believe in largely because she believes in it. She isn’t a fool, so you have faith in her choice of husband, and her decision not to run. By the time the family are locked inside the shelter, with the storm outside, Chastain becomes the voice of strength. She isn’t a part of the horror story until the end, and she valiantly resists the urge to panic. It’s only in a dream that she appears equally susceptible to madness. In that scene, it’s as if all hope was lost.
The end of the world is the sum of all fears. Hypochondria and paranoia give us variations on the theme: we’ll all be wiped out by disease, or we’ll all be wiped out by terrorists. But the nightmare always springs from a feeling of powerlessness. There are things in this life that are beyond our control. Death, among these, is foremost. But then, we can’t control the economy either, or our country’s standing in the world. That’s why Take Shelter can be viewed as a story of national malaise, or a parable for the global recession. The great thing about the film, for me, is that it doesn’t have to be a metaphor at all. It’s a tragedy. The ending is perfect. In the last scene, all our fears become real.