Take Shelter is a harrowing examination of the multiple layers of anxiety plaguing Curtis, an average working class man in a small-town America. Curtis suffers from unnervingly realistic nightmares, in which apocalyptic storms threaten him, his own dog viciously mauls him, strangers and even his wife attack him. Michael Shannon (robbed of Oscar recognition) makes Curtis’s sweaty, disorienting panic disturbingly palpable for the audience. The film’s seamless editing ensures that we, like Curtis, question if what we’re seeing is real, waking hallucination, or dream.
Curtis’s nightmares reflect the personal and societal pressures that weigh on him everyday. First of all, he’s worried that his dreams signal the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, which afflicted his mother when she was his age. Curtis also faces the anxiety of a blue collar worker trying to provide for and protect his family. The film connects his personal anxiety to the broader context of our current economic recession, job insecurity, and financial instability: people keep telling Curtis that he better not get fired because new jobs are hard to find; the bank advises Curtis against unsustainable loans; his brother warns him about running up credit card debt (Curtis is trying to find extra cash to build a storm shelter to protect himself and his family from the tornadoes and toxic rain that appear repeatedly in his dreams).
Take Shelter also highlights the average family’s anxieties about health care and inadequate health insurance. Curtis deals with a lack of control in his own medical care – after the counselor he finally opens up to is abruptly replaced, he faces the prospect of repeating his history and trauma to an new counselor. He struggles with the vagaries of health insurance: higher than expected co-pays, difficulty getting approval for a surgery his daughter needs. When Curtis eventually loses his job because of his erratic behavior, he loses his health benefits and jeopardizes his daughter’s health care. The situation is an argument for a national health care system if I ever saw one.
Through Curtis’s apocalyptic dreams, Take Shelter even addresses global environmental fears; Curtis sees birds drop dead from the sky by the hundreds; the toxic rain resembles brown sludge he digs up at his construction work site all day, as he bulldozes the earth and tears down trees. The film suggests that Curtis has concerns, perhaps still subconscious, about the environmental legacy of his disruptive, invasive work.
So are his dreams prophesies of an impending apocalypse or his psyche’s attempts to process the myriad anxieties which plague him every day? The film doesn’t resolve the ambiguity for us. Even Curtis himself isn’t sure whether he’s going crazy or if he’s a prophet. It’s a testament to Michael Shannon’s skill that he enables his character to pursue both possibilities with equal conviction, and it’s a testament to the film’s strength that it allows us to draw our own conclusions from its compelling ambiguity.