The Brilliance of ‘Take Shelter’ and the Horrors of Mental Illness

Take Shelter
Sony Pictures Classics
By  · Published on March 14th, 2016

Take Shelter isn’t a horror film. If Blockbuster Video were still alive and kicking, you probably wouldn’t find copies of the movie shelved in the horror section. Nor would you find it on any list of the best horror movies of the decade, our own included. While the film centers on an emotionally violent character much like in The Shining or Session 9 – and utilizes a nightmarish dream logic to visualize the main character’s fears – it avoids almost entirely the suggestion that these fears exist outside of his head.

Take Shelter is also not an apocalyptic film, despite the film leaning that way in its final moments. It is a film about being sick. Over the course of two hours, the film shows the brutal effects that mental illness can have on the idyllic American family. We watch a man begin to question his sanity, alienate himself from those closest to him, and lead his wife and daughter down the road to both social and financial ruin. Michael Shannon’s Curtis goes from being a well-respected member of the neighborhood to the person they dread seeing at community events; people who once cared for him look at him with fear and pity, and Curtis still retains enough of himself to recognize that in their eyes.

It’s possible that Jeff Nichols might find a straight-forward horror movie something of a vacation at this point in his career. In each of his first three films as writer-director, Nichols has shown a knack for building quiet stories to a violent and tragic conclusion. Shotgun Stories and Mud each introduce a cast of extremely likable characters who, owing to a long family history in the region, become entangled in violence that shouldn’t involve them. Take Shelter is no different in this regard; we realize within minutes of meeting Curtis and his family that these are both extremely decent people and people who are about to put through a tremendous hardship owing to a previous generation. Curtis’s struggles with his own doomsday visions – and the underlying schizophrenia that drives them – show mental illness as something that can dissolve happiness from the inside out.

That makes Take Shelter terrifying; it also makes it sadly necessary for people who haven’t otherwise been exposed to the disease. A few weeks after the film’s theatrical release, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece dedicated to the film’s treatment of mental illness. The author – himself a medical professional – spoke with several mental health experts on the symptoms of schizophrenia; most agreed that Take Shelter accurately captured the type of issues that someone diagnosed with the illness would endure. Twenty percent of all schizophrenia cases include some family history of the disease. Patients are often afflicted with the delusion that they are being persecuted or hunted, and many experience auditory or even visual hallucinations. What’s more, an accurate diagnosis of schizophrenia can require six months of ongoing delusions and a decrease in a person’s ability to function.

If it still seems a stretch to describe Take Shelter as a scary movie, it’s important to consider that schizophrenia is a far more common – and far more debilitating – issue than most horror movie tropes. Slasher films, for example, were the product of a time period where serial murderers were a legitimate news item. According to a recent study by Radford University, each decade from 1970 to 1990 averaged over 600 newly active serial killers in the United States. Recently, those numbers have fallen; the current decade featured less than one hundred active serial killers. Even at its peak, however, the prospect that someone would kill you with a machete was never as immediate as a schizophrenia diagnosis. There are over 3.5 million recognized cases of schizophrenia in the United States alone; while the symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the illness, it is also considered to be one of the leading causes of disability. For many people watching Take Shelter, Curtis’s struggle with mental illness is a very real and very tangible fear for them or their loved ones.

Consider the ways in which Curtis’s illnesses manifest itself. Throughout the film, Curtis is plagued by vivid nightmares that cause him psychosomatic pain. After dreaming that he his attacked by his dog, Curtis suffers from arm pains in the spot where the bite occurred. Another dream sees Curtis’s friend and coworker attacking him during a typical work shift; Curtis is frantically shaken awake by his wife Samantha and wakes in a pool of his own blood (having bitten into the side of his mouth in his panic). When Curtis dreams that Samantha attacks him as well, it takes all of his strength to let his guard down around her. In each of these situations, his paranoia that someone wants to hurt him or his daughter runs so deep that he attempts to sever ties with them in real life, all the while knowing he has no logical reason to do so. He knows he is hurting those he cares about but cannot overcome his fears.

Setting aside the severity of his symptoms, the possibility that Curtis may be suffering from mental illness ostracizes him from his normal support group. At the age of ten, Curtis’s mother abandoned him in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store, leading to her schizophrenia diagnosis and full-time commitment to a mental health facility. This effectively closed the door on the subject of mental illness in Curtis’s household. One scene between Curtis and his brother Kyle is particularly telling: when rumors reach Kyle that Curtis is beginning to behave erratically, he stops by the house and does his best to talk around the issue at hand. Instead of asking about his state of mind, Kyle expresses concern that the tornado shelter might be a financial hardship on Curtis’s family and asks if his brother is “stressed out.” When he does mention their mother – asking if Curtis had gone to see her recently – he is rebuffed by the suggestion that he should bring his own children to visit her. “I mean, I’ll get around to it,” he offers weakly.

And even the mental health industry itself can be a barrier to Curtis getting the help he needs. Curtis’s best assistance comes from literature on mental illness he checks out from the local library. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist that his personal physician recommends is two hours away, too long a drive for a man with both a full-time job and a deaf daughter who requires special attention. And despite his early attempts to develop a dialogue on his illness with a trained professional, Curtis is quickly handed off to a new counselor when the woman he has been speaking with leaves to pursue another position in a different community. This industry was never designed to service small communities like LaGrange, Ohio; despite the best intentions of those working with Curtis, too much of the burden of getting help has been placed on his shoulders, and he’s in absolutely no condition to make progress on his own.

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Watching someone’s life fall apart onscreen is hard enough when we can chalk it up to pure fiction, but mental illness and the barriers to treatment are a sad fact of the world we live in. It is estimated that mental illnesses as a whole affects one in every five people in the United States every year; while Nichols and his cast did not necessarily set out to make an issue film, over time we’ve come to appreciate Take Shelter for the important movie that it really is. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over movies where characters wander naked into the woods and get killed with an axe, but each and every time I’ve watched Take Shelter, I’ve spent the rest of that night in a state of unease about what I would do if I lost my ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not. It causes me real physical pain to watch Curtis struggle with his illness. So maybe Take Shelter isn’t exactly a horror film, but as one of the few movies that manages to make me lose a little sleep, I don’t mind saying that it’s scary as hell.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)