Take Shelter: A Portrait of America’s Mental Health Crisis

We desperately need to talk about mental health issues, immediately. Inspired by the boldness and rapidity of the #metoo movement, the defining issue of this decade and possibly the century, I feel more comfortable pointing out other elephants still taking up residence in this room. As a heterosexual white male, there are mountains of challenges I’ll never have to face. Often it feels like my role with things like #metoo is to shut up, listen, and advocate. Sometimes it is. That said, I’m going to cut the shit for just a moment and be as direct as I never am. Toxic masculinity fucked me up and I will never be OK. Today, I have a safe place, in my relationship, I’m naturally an emotional wreck who cries too easily. My girlfriend organically has a stern, “get your shit together” type of attitude. We’re lucky to have found each other, but I’m phobic of expressing emotion with anyone but her, or outside the abstraction of the printed word. Here, I’m probably viewed as unhinged, in person I’m fairly withdrawn. The way I naturally express myself was pretty well unacceptable in western North Carolina, growing up. Nowadays I’m brave enough to just be myself, but it’s too late. This is myself, now. Quiet and reserved has become part of my personality, ever projecting the image of Gary Cooper’s strong silent type, and in truth, anything but. Patriarchy isn’t entirely to blame, though. While a huge part of my problem is the long-term effects of toxic masculinity, a significant portion of it is also mental illness.

Stigma and doubt plague people with mental problems. Trying to explain mental illness to previous employers for my performance or odd behavior was like trying to explain Inland Empire to a deaf cat. It would have been better to just say, “I don’t like my job and I shouldn’t have to do it.” At least I wouldn’t have been called a liar. There would be some dignity and self-respect in telling my employers I don’t care what they think. There’s none in going into a room with two supervisors, knowing you’re about to get fired, and having no choice but to listen to the sound of your own voice break, as you explain your mental defectiveness. Unquestionably, I’ve lost jobs due to mental problems. Friendships, relationships, opportunities I will never get back, so much potential happiness—evaporated. While I’m not rattling off my specific mental problems, as it’s neither relevant, nor anyone’s business, I do think discussing this subject is illustrative of the personal connection I have with the movie Take Shelter. It’s a criminally under-appreciated film with the power to remind people they aren’t alone in these unfair, but real battles.

Curtis, played by Michael Shannon, is experiencing vivid nightmares of a coming apocalyptic storm. He believes the dreams are a prophecy, but Curtis is developing schizophrenia and in rapid fashion. Director Jeff Nichols’ depiction of a man succumbing to one of the world’s most dreaded mental illnesses is among the most true to life examples in modern cinema.

Cards on the table, I’m not a fan of romanticizing mental illness. Not just in film, but across all mediums, the idea of “going crazy” is often depicted as some psychedelic journey where the subject learns deep lessons and is open to perceptions others can never be. As though mental illness, while tragic, is also a gift. That isn’t the case. Mental illness is a hindrance, it’s a struggle, it’s not “worth it” because it provides “unique perspectives.” The reality of mental illness is, as depicted in Take Shelter, terrifying. Not terrifying in the sense of reading a Clive Barker novel, but more to the tune of losing your child in a supermarket. A loss of control over something vital. Curtis isn’t really learning anything about himself he wants to know, he’s just scared and wishes it would stop. Initially, he’s terrified of the storm. Throughout much of the movie he’s trying his best to figure out a way of keeping his family safe from the storm, once it arrives. As we know, the storm is not coming. So instead of appearing to his friends and family as the deeply caring person he certainly is, he comes off as a selfish nutjob.

It’s heartbreaking to watch Curtis pass a test he isn’t actually taking with flying colors. Could Curtis’ wife look into his heart, she’d instantly see how much her husband loves her and their daughter, and how much time and energy he’s putting into keeping them safe. But she can’t. She’s only human. Instead she just sees her husband wasting time and money building a storm cellar and sabotaging his job. She begins to despise him, as many would. Curtis takes home some work equipment to build his storm cellar, gets caught, and is of course fired. No-one cares that he’s having a mental breakdown and is incapable of separating his delusions from reality. They just know he’s fucking up, constantly. His job drops him, and as a result, his wife sees him as a failure. This is exactly how mental illness works at methodically dismantling someone’s life. It forces people into irrational, irresponsible, and bizarre behavior. You’re left to watch as everyone around you begins gradually stepping away. Even the ones you thought loved you the most. Everyone has their breaking point. No-one has any insight into your perspective, all they see are actions. Welcome to isolation.

Once Curtis begins accepting the idea that his “visions” are quite possibly symptoms of an approaching mental storm, rather than a physical one, his fear changes. Instead of being afraid of the apocalypse, he begins fearing something worse, an inability to provide for his family. Equally daunting, he begins to understand that the essence of who he is, may soon begin to recede. While the physical world may not be ending, his world may well be. There’s nothing profound about this new development in Curtis’ life, nothing to say, “yeah but its worth it because…” The truth is, going crazy just sucks. Curtis doesn’t come off as a tortured genius, he’s not even particularly smart, he’s just a regular guy watching his life fall apart.

In a powerful scene, Curtis stands at the center of a town dinner assembly, wild eyed and broken by madness, flipping a table dramatically and screaming at every guest in attendance: “THERE IS A STORM COMING, LIKE NOTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN!” On paper, it seems like it would be a cool scene, and don’t get me wrong, it’s intense and possibly Michael Shannon’s most brilliant acting moment. But it’s not a fun scene to watch – it’s pitiful. Curtis wavers in intensity just long enough to look at a familiar face and ask him if he thinks he (Curtis) is crazy. There’s an unmistakable break in his voice as his scream becomes a whimper. Immediately we understand the fear this man is going through. The scene is capped off by Curtis noticing terror on the face of his daughter, causing him to break down completely as he begins to sob. For my money, this scene should be in the hall of fame for memorable 21st century acting moments, alongside the “No Blinking” scene in The Master, “Betty’s Audition” in Mulholland Drive, and… I guess just pick your favorite Daniel Plainview moment in There Will Be Blood. Sadly, Take Shelter isn’t as well-known. Let’s change that, because if you know someone with a mental illness, and you do, Take Shelter is an important film. The aforementioned scene of Curtis snapping and making a fool of himself is difficult for me to watch because of how true to life it actually is.

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In tenth grade, I experienced a psychotic break. My classmates and I were working on a group project and I was sleepy, as I’d barely slept the night before. For weeks leading up to that day, I had been experiencing some strange psychological symptoms. Vivid nightmares about people standing outside my window, intense anxiety every day, constantly hearing the sound of a basketball being dribbled in my bedroom at night. Not fun. What was worse, I hadn’t told my mom, because at 15, psychosis feels like something to hide, or at least that’s how I felt.

As we worked on the project, I remember feeling lethargic and disconnected. I closed my eyes, resting my head in my hands. Usually, when I shut my eyes, things are darker, so I immediately knew something wasn’t right, because this time when I closed my eyes, everything was brighter. White and black swirls were churning behind my eyelids. My vision was just doing its own thing. The swirl became a kind of pyramidal shape and I sat watching this strange projection. It was a little scary, but mostly just confusing. As the intricacy of the visuals increased, I started feeling more and more uneasy. It was 18 years ago, so my memory isn’t perfect, but something I’ll never forget is the moment I lost myself. As I was watching these hallucinations, I remember thinking, “This isn’t something that happens to me. Someone else is doing this. Someone is inside my head, making this happen. My entire personality and existence is being erased while I’m being distracted. There’s some nefarious thing in my head and I’m powerless to stop it.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, I raised my head, looked around at my classmates and realized, “This is happening to everyone in here. They’re all being taken over. We’re all being turned into new people.”

While I couldn’t make this delusion go away, I knew something was wrong with how I was thinking, so I abruptly left class and called my mom on a payphone. Just as an aside, I don’t have schizophrenia, my slip into psychosis was related to something else. Again, this isn’t where I list off mental issues, it’s and illustration how close to home Take Shelter hits for me. While I haven’t gone through exactly what he went through, I understand losing yourself, and the feeling of abandonment when people you love either doubt you or judge you. Something that will never leave me is a look on my grandmother’s face as I was explaining that people were monitoring me from outside my window at night. We were at a stoplight and the look on her face was unmistakable, she was afraid of me. Ironically, I was telling her this because I was terrified of the people I believed were outside my window and I wanted to be comforted.

When Curtis visits his mother, who also has schizophrenia, she asks him how he is and Curtis responds that he’s fine. At this point in the movie, his response tells the viewer everything there is to know about most people suffering from mental illnesses. They don’t want to bother you with their problem, they don’t want to burden anyone, and at this point it’s easy to see why.

Take Shelter ends ambiguously, in a technical sense. But if you’re really paying attention, I feel there is but a single conclusion one could come to. The final scene is Curtis, his wife, and his daughter standing on a beach, and the apocalyptic storm from his dreams is just offshore, coming inland. Instead of only Curtis seeing it, his daughter and wife also see it now. His wife looks to him and nods knowingly. This isn’t ambiguous to me at all. Curtis is suffering from schizophrenia, he has felt alone and abandoned all throughout the film, his wife has finally recognized the challenges he is facing. Curtis is still dreaming of the storm, but the fact that his wife is now also acknowledging it in his dream, means that he no longer feels he’s facing this challenge alone. He has someone there to face it with him. It’s a hopeful ending. Many have opined that the apocalyptic storm has literally arrived and that Curtis was, in fact, a prophet. On one hand, it’s frustrating because it means the viewer has missed the point of the story. On the other hand, it’s quite brilliant, as it effectively puts viewers with the “it’s literal” point of view into Curtis’ shoes, essentially pulling them into his delusion that the storm is real.

On a personal note, I find the final scene as affecting as any other in Take Shelter, because like Curtis, I too am fortunate enough to have an understanding, red-haired partner, standing at my side as a beacon of support in the face of mental illness. Thank you Curtis, for being such a poignant depiction of a crisis affecting millions, and thank you Alisha, for your seemingly infinite patience as we weather this storm together.


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3 Replies to “Take Shelter: A Portrait of America’s Mental Health Crisis”

  1. Great article! For excellent insights of living with Schizophrenia, follow Rebecca Chamaa @wr8ter on Twitter. Also, checkcout the work done with patients in Geel, Belgium. Fab work. St Dymphna, Patron saint of Mental illness, opn+

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