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'Take Shelter'

by Jake Mynatt

Standing on a street corner and babbling to one’s self for money is a noble pursuit. Perhaps not in its productivity but at least in its honesty. The dollars are handed over without coercion. Sometimes strangers do it out of pity. Mostly they want to feel better about themselves. What I’m selling them is an illusion of themselves as savior. And it’s all the more lucrative when it rains.

Lightning is a shouting match between ground and cloud. When you find yourself caught in the middle, it’s nothing but blinding white and deafening crackle. After, there’s the smell of burning hair mixed with the almost savory aroma of cooked meat. Lying on my back in the rain, watching the smoke rise off of me and suddenly craving a Jimmy Dean sausage patty, it occurred to me that I would not make it to the theater to see The Avengers this day. 

The waiting room at the hospital was half-full when I was carted in. I had technically died twice while on the ride over, but a local high school football hero Chad McNorth had fractured his right index finger that day, so I was in for a wait.

Luckily, the hospital had sprung for premium cable, as predicted by the elven demon who had tried to guide me to the dark-lights of Hades during my brief death spells. He had also predicted that the McNorth family would insist on additional tests on their pride and joy, so I would be waiting at least long enough to catch Take Shelter in its entirety before I would see a doctor.

Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis, played incredibly by Michael Shannon, a man whose delusional visions of impending doom convince him that he may be losing his mind, but prepares for the possibility that he’s not. His dreams are full of storm clouds in odd formations, spitting rain with the consistency of motor oil. The storms drive his dog to attack him, and upon waking the spot of the bite hurts all day.

Early scenes play like supernatural horror. An attack on his vehicle plays like a zombie apocalypse. Another vision plays like an alien attack, with the contents of his home suspending in mid-air during an onslaught by strange figures outside.

There was something familiar in Curtis’ obsession. A fellow sitting near me, who I came to refer to as “Neck Wound,” pointed it out. Curtis was like the Dreyfus character from Close Encounters. His behavior begins to revolve around this obsession. People around town begin to take note. But where that film found its hero driven from his family to pursue madness, here, the madness comes from the need to protect his family.

Curtis’ escalating reactions to his delusions become more public. He’s in danger of losing his construction job, which would compromise the benefits needed to pay for his hearing impaired daughter’s treatments. There’s a touching component in the way they handle the daughter’s condition. It’s not a burden on them. Rather, it strengthens the family as they learn to communicate together. It’s only when the communication stops as Curtis hides his delusions that the strain begins to show on the family.

I was struck by something “Exposed Skull” mentioned before going into another seizure -- this is the story of the cold gripping fear a man feels under the weight of responsibility. Curtis’ wife Samantha, in yet another great turn by Jessica Chastain, keeps the family sane and stable. But the balance depends on that insurance from his job, which is more valuable than the paycheck he brings home. He finds himself working just to maintain a nebulous “eligibility.” So when those dreams of apocalypse plague him, it gives him purpose.

“Ruptured Testicle” disagreed, though. He saw it as more of a story of a man’s cowardice in the face of responsibility. Curtis’ condition seems hereditary, as suffered by his mother when she was roughly his age. He goes to the library to read up on mental illness. He seeks medical help, looking for a pill to take away the delusions so he can numbly lumber through life. I disagreed with that perspective, but understood the slant toward an emasculating interpretation coming from him.

Take Shelter is wonderful in its many layers. I approached it expecting straight-up horror, as its early dreadful moments seemed to imply. But it shifted effortlessly into other modes, from small-town slice of life to family drama. Its universe is populated with people who are all essentially good and honest, but find tension when their personal hell spills onto each other’s paths.

Even when Curtis explodes late in the movie, rambling and screaming in a way that would probably net me an additional $20 a day easy if only I could express it as convincingly, the community does not turn against him. Nor do they pity him. He’s simply the extreme representation of each of their struggles. What makes him different from them is that he either has the courage to let it all out or lacks the strength to keep it all in, depending on how you look at it.

The films ends much like the life of “Caved in Chest Cavity” did just moments later: with chilling implications and new questions posed. Is this all in the mind or has some greater external force given these visions, and for what purpose? It is the signature of an excellent storyteller when those questions linger after the story has ended, yet we don’t feel cheated by the lack of definitive resolution?

With credits rolling, and the renewed vigor within me that comes from watching a satisfying film, I decided to show myself out, offering up the gurney I had been delivered in to “Bent Back Elbow Guy.” He thanked me, told me I smelled like bacon, and I was on my way.

I returned to my station on the corner, confident in the earning potential of my minor medical detour. There’s a certain cache that comes with being the “Dude That Got Hit by Lightning” that links hipsters looking to ironically help a hobo and genuine good Samaritans alike to cough up the cash. Especially when it rains.

If this storm keeps up, it’s going to be an awesome summer.

Illustration courtesy of the author


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Jake Mynatt is a writer as Charles Manson is a singer/songwriter. By trade, he's a computer guy. He's married, and loving it so much he hopes to start dozens of secret families all over the country. That's just a joke, unless you're interested. Send headshots and a signed pre-nup to jake.mynatt [at]