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Take Shelter

Stephen Tomkins

Directed by Jeff Nichols
­­­­Certificate 15,  120 mins


Mainstream cinematic treatment of mental illness often fails to take it seriously. In place of thoughtful, medically accurate exploration of the human mind are too often easy cures, melodramatic set pieces, and real pain turned into amusing quirks. Take Shelter is the antidote - the story of a man, embodied by the great actor Michael Shannon, overwhelmed by fear that something terrible is going to happen.

He is a construction worker on the lower end of the middle in 'middle class', married to Jessica Chastain's loving and pragmatic partner, and the son of a woman overtaken in midlife by paranoid schizophrenia. He is suffering nightmares about the future, but his attempts to find therapeutic support are frustrated both by the US pay as you go healthcare system, and the lack of cultural respect or support for men who admit their own vulnerability. His deaf daughter needs surgery, the family needs a vacation, and work is stressful. It's a perfect storm for someone who is vulnerable to mental illness; never mind the political subtext - part of the film's wisdom is to omit explicit mention of the violence done to, by, and in the name of, the US American psyche in our era. It is simply taken for granted that we are all scared, and that beneath the surface of otherwise stable faces lies the potential for terror - that the plane we are on will crash, that the city we are in will explode, that the sky will fall.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols' previous film, Shotgun Stories, did a magnificent job of understanding the things that make for violence, and that sometimes the most radical peacemaking sounds far more like a whimper than a bang. In Take Shelter, he develops this theme of transcending the myth of redemptive violence by showing both how anxiety paralyzes, and how recovery from, or at least integration of, such overwhelming fear is realistically possible.

At the Oscars immediately following 9/11, the ceremony that began with Woody Allen inviting people to remember the cinematic and sentimental magic of New York, a typical Hollywood attempt to gloss over the necessary emotional response of lamentation, Russell Crowe won a gold statuette for pretending to have paranoid schizophrenia. The film in which he played, A Beautiful Mind, from Ron Howard - a man whose good films are so good they suggest his bad films were made by someone else with the same name - took home the biggest prize, and thus was anointed Best Picture a story about serious mental illness, and how to recover in three easy steps. The movie downplayed the role that Professor John Nash had in developing Game Theory, the you-might-shoot-us-first-so-we'll-bomb-you-instead logical fallacy that guided Cold War politics so gracelessly for nearly five decades, and undergirds what has stopped being called, but is still being fought as, the war on terror today.

I've been wanting to forget A Beautiful Mind for ten years. I didn't know that it would take another film to make me do that. We've been waiting a decade for a film to take the relationship between political and personal anxiety seriously, to avoid sensationalism, and to offer realistic hope. Take Shelter is that film, a genuine masterpiece of independent cinema, small town drama, with a protagonist whose fears are so real, and pain so evident that you find yourself wanting to reach out and stop him hurting himself.  More than that, in its imagining of what might be required to heal our anxiety, Take Shelter understands that death is a prerequisite to resurrection, and that sometimes those who will lead us through fear can only do so  because they have suffered it first.

Gareth Higgins