In the great big grab-bag of Hollywood movie tropes, there aren’t many as well-used or as long-serving as the protective father.
Whether a plot contains disaster, alien invasion, or meddlesome terrorists, the bond between patriarch and family is enough to inspire great feats of heroism. These men – be they Tom Cruise’s loser divorcee in War Of The Worlds, Dennis Quaid’s scientist dad in The Day After Tomorrow, or even John McClane – are protagonists to rally behind, satisfying primal instincts to provide care, safety and shelter.
While it may not seem like it at first, one of psychological drama Take Shelter’s major successes lies in its clever subversion of this trope, colliding the stock narrative conceit with a powerful psychological undertone.
Construction worker Curtis LaForche lives a mundane, pleasant life with his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter in rural Ohio, until he is plagued by terrible nightmares of a coming apocalypse. These visions are truly chilling, filled with portent and unsettling imagery of oil-slick rain, plagues of birds and aggressive, faceless antagonists. Convinced that such a storm is indeed brewing on the horizon, he becomes obsessed with building a shelter in his back yard, while expressing all of the destructive, anti-social and self-deceiving symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
Curtis’ motivation is to ensure the safety of his young family, but his reasoning is unsound. However, his is a character flaw that reflects backwards, casting the obsessive urges of the likes of John Matrix, Taken’s Bryan Mills or countless Harrison Ford characters in a whole new light.
Those fathers knew best because they lived in uncomplicated worlds governed by simpler ideals. On the other hand, Curtis’ America faces its own economic apocalypse, in which a lost job not only threatens financial ruin for a family, but potential personal danger, without the safety net of medical insurance. And then there are the risky loans and scaremongering news reports of chlorine spills, which further chip away at the man’s authority over his own family’s well-being.
Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, and soon-to-be-Zod) gives a standout performance as Curtis, giving his compromised masculinity a simmering, repressed tension. At first, Curtis is in complete denial, but soon attempts to take care of his condition in a pragmatic, workmanlike, and completely misguided way, lying to his wife about the nightmares and shrugging off late-night seizures. However, as his paranoia takes greater hold, Shannon’s jawline tightens in unfortunate, hopeless defiance – which makes his full-blown schizophrenic episodes so disarming, and, in one case, extremely disturbing.
Even though Take Shelter is full of chilling moments of psychological-themed horror, it is the small, domestic details that give the film its edge. Writer-director Jeff Nichols spends time establishing the family unit – including Curtis’ deaf daughter, for whose sake the parents learn sign language, and look into expensive cochlear implant surgery – before upsetting the paradigm.
Such a strong foundation rests on Shannon and Chastain, both of whom are superb throughout, and particularly during the strange, evocative closing sequence, where the family work through the father’s issues from within the storm shelter.
Nevertheless, this work is almost undone by an utterly confounding rug-pull of an ending. Tonally off-beat and not insignificant in implication, it’s a conclusion that could make or break the film for many viewers, and will inspire a fair share of post-film discussion. It’s also something of a red herring. A pseudo-twist or a double bluff that can still be reconciled with the film’s themes of mental illness and the family unit.
Unfortunately, it’s a black hole, and could nudge Take Shelter off its course towards greatness. Indeed, the film is a veritable tribute to New Hollywood; it references Malick in its sky-gazing cinematography, Scorsese in its interest in masculinity, and its plot marries the paranoia of The Conversation, with the blind obsession of Close Encounters of The Third Kind. All this, with a contemporary spin, which tries to say as much about the American Male, as it does the current state of his homeland.
Whether it achieves such standing or not, Take Shelter succeeds in something quite impressive. It takes familiar psychological themes – too often only applied to hysterical female characters – and introduces them to the paterfamilias. In the process, it not only says much about fatherhood in society, but also in film.