The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Take Shelter – a descent into madness or a catastrophe thriller?

with 30 comments

I think it’s safe to say that a film is ambiguous if the audience can’t even agree about what the main theme is.

If you look up Take Shelter at IMDb you’ll see that it has two category tags: “drama” and “thriller” and if you read the forum, you’ll find people fiercely defending both of the interpretations.

What is undisputable is that Curtis, the young father and husband in the centre of the film, has nightmares about a storm of apocalyptical dimensions

[Warning: What follows might be considered mildly spoilerific]

Half of the lot think that those dreams point towards reality and that the man is a prophetic rather than insane. That’s the “thriller” team.

Personally I’m with the other team, the “drama” supporters, who think that Take Shelter all the way through is about a man – father and husband – who slowly realizes that he is suffering from a mental illness and how this affects himself as well as his family.

Intentional ambiguity?
Perhaps the writer and director Jeff Nichols made the film a bit ambiguous and open for interpretations on purpose.

According to an interview I’ve seen quoted, it seems as if he doesn’t think it’s  particularly important if the oily rain that is falling or the threatening tornadoes are for real or if they’re just products of Curtis imagination and something we see through his eyes only.

What is more important is how the relationship between Curtis and his wife develops over time, from the initial exclusion, secrecy and denial into a new level. The film isn’t about how you protect yourself from a storm, at least not a physical, weather related one. If there is a storm, it’s the one that is affecting the family.

To be honest I don’t think I’d like this film very much if I was in the thriller team. There are more thrilling films out there about people fighting desperately to survive against the raging elements.

As a drama theory supporter I loved it though and it’s the second film I watch in a theatre this year that will get a 5/5 rating from me. The first one was We Need to Talk about Kevin, and I think those two movies are connected in how they use powerful images with a surreal touch to help us to get access to chambers of a person’s mind on a very emotional, intuitive level. They use images rather than words to tell what’s happening on the inside.

We Need to Talk about Kevin had Tilda Swinton doing an amazing performance. In Take Shelter it’s Michael Shannon who shines. He’s not doing a stereotypical portray of a lunatic; he manages to give a very nuanced portray of someone who is paranoid and has delusions, but who also is a loving and caring father and husband, who tries to do what he thinks is best for the family, even if his actions sometimes are misguided.

Resonating with me
Take Shelter may be considered ambiguous by some, especially the ending. I’m not ambiguous in my appreciation for it though. I have the feeling that it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

It probably resonates a little bit more than it might have done otherwise since the daughter of a friend of mine has been diagnosed with mental illness and they’ve been going through a very rough time over the last couple of years handling this. It feels as if this film helps to bring me a bit closer to them.

It was a long wait for me from the launch in US until it finally reached my hometown this week, but I’m glad I finally got to see it. If you like movies that don’t write everything on your nose, but leave a bit of room for yourself to think and react, I recommend this one strongly.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, US, 2011) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

June 8, 2012 at 1:30 am

Posted in Take Shelter

30 Responses

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  1. Yeah, I loved this movie too. The performances were stunning, it was superbly paced and that ending still whirls around my head even three months after seeing it. I’m gonna buy it next week, and I can’t wait to see it again!

    Stevee

    June 8, 2012 at 1:49 am

    • I had almost given up on ever getting to see it in a theatre and was prepared to wait for the DVD, but at last it came up. My expectations were high after all loving words I’d heard about the film, but it lived up to it. Excellent.

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 7:43 am

  2. The movie is coming on Starz! next week. I think it’s a great film and I’m eager to see it again. Especially that ending.

    Steven Flores

    June 8, 2012 at 1:50 am

    • It was great! I was a bit boggled at first, but after thinking it over for a while I had an interpretation that worked for me.

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 7:44 am

  3. I too viewed this more as an exploration of mental health rather than a thriller and It’s far more effective if viewed from this angle. Also, like yourself, I’ve had experience of someone close to me suffering a similar affliction. Of course the ending adds to the ambiguity but I think that can also be explained. Good post Jessica.

    Mark Walker

    June 8, 2012 at 8:55 am

    • Thanks Mark. Yes, I was honestly a bit baffled when I saw how many there were who read those events as real. But they seemed to be fairly happy about the movie anyway, so I guess it works then. you reach two audiences instead of one that way. 🙂

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 9:06 am

  4. I’m so happy that you finally got to see it. You have been waiting. And I’m also pleased with your reaction to the movie.

    I am absolutely on your team, to me this is a drama, and it is about insanity. (Even though his fears might happen in real life anyway…)

    I have an explanation of the ending that fits the story, the themes, and the feeling in the film. I don’t need the director to explain the ending. If the interpretation of the ending fits so good, it’s true.
    Let’s discuss tomorrow! 🙂

    My review (in Swedish). I also gave it a very uncommon 5/5:
    http://fripp21.blogspot.se/2012/03/take-shelter-2011.html

    Henke

    June 8, 2012 at 9:19 am

    • What a wonderful, enthusiastic review, especially when I know how rare your 5/5s are. Funny that you mention The Road, another movie which I really loved. That one, at least in my world, IS depicturing real (or well as real as they get in movie that take place in an imagined future) events. But there was something in the tone perhaps that made me associate to it. Perhaps it was just the images of the threatening skies.

      Let’s babble and bubble of enthusiasm when we meet up over a pint. 🙂

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

  5. wow. a full 5? I am happy you enjoyed this, a lot more than i did too.

    There is no dispute from me that the performances were brilliant. But I found the middle act too drawn out. But what do I know huh?

    • We can’t agree about everything. 🙂 I was so pulled into his world and the fantastic acting and the perfect cinematography and tone in it all that I felt it didn’t lack anything in what it was aiming for.

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 10:57 am

  6. Nice review. Although I do think that it convincingly portrays the onset of a mental illness I didn’t like it as much as you did. I don’t think it’s because I’m a any of those camps though 😉

    Nostra

    June 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

    • Thanks Nostra! It’s always such a joy when you find something that you really like. I suspect I do it a little more oftenly than many others. 🙂

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 11:29 am

  7. Great analysis. I loved this movie too, and I am inclined to agree with your interpretation. A lot of people question the ending (“Was there actually a storm?”), but I think the important thing is that his wife is supporting him through his struggles. After he finally confides in her and seeks treatment, that is when she stands behind him. In many ways, I thought this ending was similar to that of Inception. Was Dom Cobb dreaming or was he in reality? It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that he’s at peace.

    I wrote about Take Shelter a while ago. I gave it 3.75/4, although it probably deserves the full 4 in reality.

    http://tommydtalksmovies.com/2012/02/28/take-shelter-review-and-discussion/

    Tommy D

    June 8, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    • Thanks for your kind words! I think it’s the first time someone has called a post of mine an “analysis”. 🙂

      I read the ending very much like you did, that it was about the support he had, how their relationship had developped.

      Thanks for linking your post! I understand your hesitation to give it the highest points. I’m very generous with 4/5, but 5/5 really makes me think twice. But I felt that it was warranted in this case.

      Jessica

      June 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm

  8. Yours is the umpteenth review I read that praises the film and somehow I still haven’t seen it. Big fan of Shannon and Chastain so I should get to watching it ASAP.

    fernandorafael

    June 9, 2012 at 4:17 am

    • You definitely should! I guess it should be out on DVD soonish if you haven’t got the chance to catch it in a cinema. I had more or less given up hope about it when it finally turned up in my dear little arthouse cinema, once again saving the day.

      Jessica

      June 9, 2012 at 10:16 am

  9. I enjoyed this movie although not as much as you did. What I liked most about this movie was the atmosphere and the feeling of impending doom. I preferred Jeff Nichols previous movie, Shotgun Stories which is very good and also stars Michael Shannon.

    Michael Shannon is a great actor, I also enjoyed his work in Boardwalk Empire and My son, my son, what have you done. They’re all fairly similar roles but he does it so well.

    carrandas

    June 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    • I should really try to look up Shotgun Stories. And Michael Shannon was fantastic here. I can’t recall having watched him a lot before, but now I’ll keep my eyes at him.

      Jessica

      June 11, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      • I checked it out after watching Take Shelter and I was pleasantly surprised. I’m sure you will be too.

        carrandas

        June 11, 2012 at 9:16 pm

  10. Fantastic review! I adore this film – the way it is filmed puts us into the main character’s mind, especially that his dreams or visions are filmed exactly the same as everything else in the movie, so we never know what is real, until the scene is over. That is extremelly acurate portrayal of mental illness. I loved the ending – whether it is just a symbolism for the storm coming towards the family or an actual catastrophe, it was a very moving, chilling and creepy scene. The musical score in the film is also amazing.

    sati

    June 14, 2012 at 2:13 am

    • Thanks! And yes, the score was great all way through with a special mentioning of the lovely song that came with the text credits. I liked it so much that I had to check up who had made it to see if there was more by that artist; turned out to be a song by the brother of the director. Not sure if he’s an established artist or if it was a one-time thing.

      Jessica

      June 14, 2012 at 8:11 am

  11. Great post! I, too, fall on the “drama” side of the fence. This is one of the better movies on mental illness I have seen, and I still think about the ending even today. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one as much as I did.

    Eric

    June 16, 2012 at 1:53 am

    • Thanks Eric! It isn’t the first time a film about mental illness is made this way, letting us see what the mentally ill see. But I think it’s done in a seamless and beautiful way here.

      Jessica

      June 16, 2012 at 8:22 am

  12. […] jag sett fram emot länge. Jag hade hört om den på Filmspotting, jag hade sett Henke, M-Noir, Jessica m fl gilla den. I ett sommarslött Stockholm visas plötsligt filmen på biografen Zita. Jag går […]

  13. […] vecka i Dalarna. Stockholm var sommarlugnt när jag gick till Zita för att se filmen som även Jessica, Movies – Noir och Fiffi har sett och gillat av olika grad. Kombinationen av ett öde […]

  14. […] Take Shelter The storm is coming. For real or just in Michael Shannon’s head? There are different opinions on this. But I loved how Take Shelter used images to let us into a person’s mind on an emotional, intuitive level. […]

  15. I loved the ambiguity of the whole thing and Shannon was tremendous. I originally gave this 4/5 but I suspect I got my rating wrong. I’ve not seen it for a couple of years but I think a revisit is on the cards.

    Mark Walker

    January 14, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    • Haha, I shouldn’t have lured you here with that link. I just noticed you’d already commented on this one in June 2012. Time flies!

      Jessica

      January 14, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      • Did I? I never even noticed. Lol. Still, it’s always nice to revisit reviews as it is the film itself. 😉

        Mark Walker

        January 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm


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