Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Synopsis: Curtis (Shannon) is a husband, father, and construction worker whose main concern is providing for his family. Recently, however, he’s been experiencing vivid nightmares involving terrible storms that compel him to expensively modify the storm shelter behind his rural home. With his worries seemingly unfounded, his efforts cause his wife (Chastain), friends, and community to suspect that he’s succumbing to psychosis just like his mother did when he was young. The project takes a financial and emotional toll that threatens his marriage and way of life, but he just can’t shake the feeling that another kind of catastrophe lies just over the horizon. He tries desperately to seek help, but finds that the only way to ease his anxiety is to finish creating that which is meant to protect what he’s so close to losing. What happens after it’s finished, however, will end up challenging him the most.
Analysis: Let us begin by investigating the motif of storms. The film starts off with Curtis witnessing oncoming storms in his dreams, so it’s appropriate for us to wonder exactly why this is the case. Storms in dreams can be interpreted in many ways, but a particularly interesting reading is to understand them as representing uncertainty or disorder, and the possibility of change. Things taking place on the ground suggest that such disorder would deal with the dreamer’s reality, however because the storms occur in the sky (as they’re inclined to do) we are prompted to presume that such disorder relates to the realm of ideas. So, the dreamer is likely stressed because of uncertainty about and/or a fear of the future. In Curtis’ case, he may not be aware of this stress on a conscious level, but it’s clear that there is a very strong fear that is trying to surface. In order for us to better understand what that fear might be and why it’s trying so hard to emerge, it might behoove us to turn to psychoanalysis.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud sets about postulating theories which act as the exceptions to his rule that the libido is what motivates nearly all of our actions. One such exception is a phenomenon he calls repetition compulsion, wherein a person who experiences a traumatic event feels compelled to repeat the event over and over again by either reenacting it in some way or re-living it with hallucinations or in his/her dreams – through memories or somehow else. As part of this, Freud claimed that those who experience traumatic events are not prepared for the anxiety that follows, which comes in one of two basic forms: automatic anxiety and anxiety as a signal. The form relevant to Curtis, I would argue, is anxiety as a signal. This anxiety is basically an alarm originating in the ego (the part of the psyche that deals with reality) warning the person of an imminent instinctual tension, i.e. cautioning that something overwhelmingly awful is about to happen and it’s imperative that he be prepared to protect himself mentally and physically. Each one of Curtis’ nightmares, it can be said, deals with attacks on his sense of normality – e.g. the safety and togetherness of him and his family. With his original family dynamic being disrupted at age ten when his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and placed in assisted living, it’s likely that this is the trauma that his nightmares are reflecting; simultaneously attacking his modern family and re-living the disruption of his original one.
In an effort to ponder the film’s cultural relevance, juxtaposing these psychoanalytic ideas with current events leads to some very interesting conceptions. Could we as a society be unconsciously dealing with the same issues as Curtis? With the economy failing to improve as much as we had hoped it would have by now, and a presidential election that seems to only be adding fuel to the fire that is the turbulent political climate, a palpable anxiety about the future can be felt from coast to coast. As bad as things are, the fear is that what the future holds contrasts even more with our pre-recession notions of normality. Our collective unconscious could be continually re-living the downfall of 2008, and our anxiety could be signaling to us that greater turmoil lies ahead. On this note, could we consider Take Shelter to be part of that signal? Do the globalized Occupy movement and the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia symbolize storms that forecast a more greatly disordered future? The film takes a fascinating stance on this psychological issue that I won’t divulge here, but suffice it to say that it takes into account considerations which lie outside the realm of psychology, and challenge the boundaries of our collective comfort zone. Take Shelter’s title could possibly be a general word of advice, but it’s almost certainly going to be the first impulse you have once the credits start to roll.