by Marin Sardy
Take Shelter, released this past fall, isn’t the first mainstream thriller to surprise audiences with plot devices that upend public prejudices about mental illness. Shutter Island (2010) comes to mind--and, like it, Take Shelter features a likable protagonist who turns out to be out of touch with reality. At its center stands Curtis, a laconic and gentle small-town family man played by Michael Shannon, who is well known for his small but scene-stealing portrayal of a mentally ill soothsayer in 2008’s Revolutionary Road. In Take Shelter, Shannon’s Curtis shows that the actor can do more than make the camera love him; he can get it right. Throughout the film, Curtis pulses with quiet resolve, devotion to his wife and daughter, and the tension between his usual self-control and the confusion and panic that begin to set in.
The movie almost lovingly follows Curtis’s efforts to address his paranoia and hallucinations, all while he is undercut by worsening symptoms and his desire to keep his problems under wraps. We find out that his mother has paranoid schizophrenia, and that he’s concerned he is now falling victim as well. But here’s the rub: Curtis’s paranoia isn’t based on typical symptoms like hearing voices or noticing changes in how things appear. Nor does it come from less common origins. Instead he has symptoms that aren’t actually associated with schizophrenia. He has dreams—-his dog attacks him; a massive tornado-generating storm looms—-that come laced with an intense sense of truthfulness that pervades his waking hours and begins to shape his behavior.
The dreams of people with schizophrenia often are, like their waking experiences, exceptionally fantastical and bizarre. And it’s true that delusions share much in common with dreams on a neurological level. But none of the diagnostic criteria for the illness involve dreams, and in the medical literature I’ve found no references to a Curtis-esque confusion between sleeping and waking states. Does such a version of schizophrenia actually exist? Or was it simply created to help the filmmaker’s larger purposes?
Maybe the director, Jeff Nichols, wanted to help audiences relate to Curtis, to more easily see themselves in him. Unlike hallucinations, everyone has had nightmares and knows what they feel like. But either way, these days it’s easy to relate to Curtis’s unease and sense of dread about what’s on the horizon—-even if we join him in fixating on rebuilding an old storm shelter. In September, New York Times critic A. O. Scott praised Take Shelter as “a quiet, restless exploration of the latent (and not so latent) terrors that bedevil contemporary American life.” Indeed it is. But given how directly our fears already parallel Curtis’s, isn’t it better to let viewers put themselves in his shoes without the extra help of fudged facts? To let audiences see that despite all the differences between themselves and him, a strong underlying connection can remain?
When it comes to bodily illnesses, filmmakers rarely get away with this kind of thing anymore. Viewers want to know exactly what is happening, for obvious reasons, and tend to roll their eyes at older films that are cagey or offer contradictory details. Gone are the days of unspecified terminal illnesses, as in the 1977 heartstring plucker Bobby Deerfield, which features a woman dying of an unnamed malady that occasionally but not always resembles cancer. Now that our culture has gotten comfortable with discussing physical ailments in polite company, audiences snicker at this. In the 1980s, films like Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias put a decisive end to the use of such devices. Yet actors playing characters with mental illnesses often still offer only variations on timeworn caricatures.
Directors also get away with drastically altering the facts of mental illnesses. Some make tremendous departures that do less to reveal the realities of mental health than to serve the filmmaker’s purposes. Take John Nash’s experiences in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. Not only are Nash’s hallucinations (which in real life were entirely auditory) represented as visual—a better fit for film—-they are presented in a way that appears ordinary, coherent, and consistent. This is good for fooling an audience into believing in Nash’s false reality, but it is nothing like the perceptual strangeness and insidious quality underlying schizophrenic delusions.
In many ways, representations of mental illness on film have made a lot of progress toward accuracy—and humanity. The nuance in Marcia Gay Harden’s performance as the generous mother Mary in 2006’s Canvas, for instance, strengthens the emotional impact of her frantic terror as she becomes wildly delusional. And Jamie Foxx’s spot-on and Oscar-worthy portrayal of the severely ill homeless musician Nathaniel in 2009’s The Soloist is, in my mind, the highlight of the past decade’s offerings. Moreover, scenes in The Soloist that show Nathaniel’s inner experience reflect what we know from first-person accounts of schizophrenia: Alone in his apartment, a young Nathaniel hears layers of whispering voices that grow louder and more insistent. He looks around him, frightened. The room appears altered, sinister. Objects seem to announce themselves to him. Disoriented and confused, he flees.
Take Shelter stays truest to the realities of mental illness once the plot gets rolling, after Curtis’s dreams give way to daytime hallucinations and his paranoia begins to cost him dearly. He loses his best friend, his job, his wife’s trust. At the same time, he ineffectually tries to find help for himself, visiting his mother in an assisted-living facility to ask her about her own symptoms, then seeing the family doctor. But he stops short of taking the long drive to a psychiatrist and instead goes in for free community counseling with someone who has neither the training nor the legal capacity to deal with the medical aspects of his problem. It is here that Take Shelter manages to be both a successful suspense film and a serious family drama. The dangerous shortcomings in available resources, as well as the lack of a safety net for Curtis’s whole family, form much of its tension.
Still, I can’t let go of the feeling that despite its strengths, the film undercuts Curtis’s dignity by altering his mental illness and using it as a device to focus and highlight more general fears. There is something dehumanizing about consistently relying on a small group of people to represent more universal human truths. It begins to deny that group the permission to be anything more than that.
I can’t help but think of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 classic Through A Glass Darkly, which is a great film but has always left me a little cold. It is in many ways a stunning examination of the human condition, but it so heavily relies on the metaphoric value of the character Karin’s ruthless hallucinations that as she becomes more ill she is reduced to a trope. Her terrifying visions come off as devices to express Bergman’s existential angst more than as the real experiences of a specific person in the grip of psychosis. I know there are many more damaging ways that people with mental illness are dehumanized in our culture, but I guess I still take this one personally. Because my mother is not a symbol. She’s a real person—-no more and no less—-even if she sees things the rest of us can’t.