How do you make a horror movie that matters? Sure, many of them technically examine deep questions: how do humans behave when the façade of society crumbles, how do you react when a supernatural entity manifests your worst fears, and so on. But to make a horror movie that, like, really matters, that takes place in the world we know, and has something genuinely profound to say about it? That’s something special—extra-difficult for a filmmaker to pull off, and a rare treat for audiences when they do.
That Jeff Nichols did pull it off—at the age of 32, in only his second feature film—is an indication of his talents, both as a storyteller and as a cinematic craftsman. He’s a paragon of what we might call the ‘regional’ filmmaker, whose sensibilities revolve around a certain type of setting rather than a certain genre or visual style. For Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock and studied film at the University of North Carolina, that defining setting is close to home—call it ‘rural America, leaning towards the South.’ His body of work is still small, but his area of interest is clear, even as he’s ranged widely within it and explored several different genres: violent family feud in rural Arkansas (Shotgun Stories, 2007), coming of age story on the Arkansas Mississippi River (Mud, 2012), supernatural sci-fi in Texas (Midnight Special, 2016), and historical biopic in 1960s Virginia (Loving, also 2016). Take Shelter is a bit of an outlier, but only in a strictly geographical sense; the small Ohio town where our protagonist, Curtis LaForche, and his family live has just as much in common, thematically and aesthetically, with the Southern locales of Nichols’ other films as it does with the Northern metropolises of the surrounding region.
In terms of genre, the movie fits nicely into Nichols’s pattern—in the sense that its genre is markedly different from his other works. The great categorizers of Wikipedia and IMDb don’t call it a horror movie, counting it instead as a psychological drama or thriller. I understand the reasons, but for once, I think they’re wrong; Nichols engages too deeply and effectively with the conventions of horror for Take Shelter to be called anything else. Consider the time-honored horror tropes that show up here: ominous storm clouds dropping unnatural precipitation, weird changes in animal behavior, creepy figure standing stark still and staring creepily into the camera, faceless strangers turned psychotic by unknown forces, door battered by unseen intruder, and many more. The way these moments are played by the actors, filmed by Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone, edited by Parke Gregg, and scored by David Wingo, is all textbook horror-movie stuff, and they achieve the desired effect as well as any.
That being said, Take Shelter is notably restrained, very much a slow-burn, mounting-dread sort of horror flick, as opposed to the jump-scare, blood-and-guts variety. I’ve always preferred this approach to horror, because it’s harder to do well and more fun to watch when it is. And some part of my affection for this movie surely stems from the way I first saw it: in a packed-to-bursting theater in Paris on a rainy night. Their reputation for snobbery may be largely deserved, but Parisians love good American cinema as much as anyone, and the tension in the room was electric. Which was no accident, because Nichols does a masterful job of creating pervasive, understated suspense.
For one thing, he does it without resorting to number of fairly easy (and thus very commonly used) horror shortcuts. He doesn’t have his protagonists living in a typically creepy setting; their home and neighborhood are intentionally not distinctive in any particular direction. Nor does he utilize the ultra-dreary color pallet that horror movies often go for, which can give even the most pleasant image an air of impending doom. He doesn’t even set the story in the bleak midwinter, when the unembellished colors he does use would have added a bit of gloom; instead, he shoots his Ohio setting at the peak of its verdant midsummer pleasantness.
There are thematic reasons for this plain aesthetic, which we’ll get to in a bit, but Nichols’s willingness to stick to it is also a mark of justified confidence in what he does do to build tension. His camerawork is unshowy but precise, using straightforward techniques to emphasize the unsettling aspects of a scene: close-ups on something important, static shots carefully framed to highlight the anxiety in key moments, or an extra movement that ends a tracking shot on a weird and unexpected note. The sound design is also impeccable, giving a nervous edge to unremarkable sounds—rustling leaves, rain on windows, engines of all kinds—and holding uneasily on the silence of someone tuned out of their surroundings, before a jarring jolt back to reality. Wingo’s score helps to maintain tension between the scares, with soft, often lovely tones interwoven with notes of anxiety, lulling us into a sense of security we know is false. Nichols even does it through casting, and not just the two leads; consider his decision to have Curtis’s friend and workmate Dewart played by the unknown-but-ubiquitous Shea Whigham, a terrific character actor with a wonderfully peculiar face and manner, equally ideal for giving an air of offbeat humanity to a bad character, or (in this case) an air of offbeat menace to a good character.
Especially important is the widely varied way that Nichols portrays the source of all that dread: namely, Curtis’s deteriorating mental state. The vivid nightmares that set it off—cleverly indistinguishable from real life at first, then veering abruptly into madness—account for most of the standard scares. But these are quite concentrated near the beginning; just when their repeated intrusion into the real world is starting to get tiresome, Nichols switches it up, deriving suspense from other sources in Curtis’s waking life: an ominous doctor’s visit, some mild but alarming visual and auditory hallucinations, or a terrifically eerie visit with his schizophrenic mother, featuring one hell of a single-scene performance by Kathy Baker. Curtis’s nightmares continue, but they’re portrayed differently as they begin to feature the people he’s closest to; the one about Dewart is related in a chilling monologue, and when Curtis’s wife, Samantha, finally appears, Nichols shows only the dream’s opening act before cutting away, leaving the violence that follows to our imaginations.
These smart decisions wouldn’t add up to much, however, without a strong lead performance holding the story together. Michael Shannon, in the midst of a long and impressive career, has also emerged as Nichols’s muse, having appeared in all the director’s movies, and his role in Take Shelter remains one of the best uses anybody has made of his singular gifts. He convincingly captures Curtis’s many virtues—his work ethic, devotion to family and friends, thoughtful practicality, and sense of personal responsibility—and yet, as A.O. Scott writes, “[his] scarecrow frame and sharply angled features seem designed to repel sentimentality.” By his very presence, he creates a subtle, conflicted sort of tension, vividly conveying not just Curtis’s mounting instability and its potential for harm, but the fundamental decency that remains at his core. Playing regular old sinister, threatening derangement may not be easy, but it’s not that complicated; Shannon, in particular, could do it in his sleep. In Take Shelter, he does something much harder and more emotionally resonant; as Scott continues, Curtis “is hardly a wild-eyed prophet on the street corner, screaming that the end is near. His diffidence makes his desperation especially painful, and his increasingly strange behavior is made more unsettling by his generally calm demeanor. Mr. Shannon’s taciturn, haunted performance manages to be both heartbreaking and terrifying. You feel sorry for this guy, even as you want to run in the other direction.” [i]
It’s this element of pathos, more than anything else, that sets Take Shelter apart from other psychological horror movies. In most of these, the protagonist’s mental devolution would be scary and destructive for themselves and their family, but its cause would be a mystery, and they would spend the movie trying to figure out what supernatural force or M. Night Shyamalan-esque narrative puzzle is causing it. Curtis, on the other hand, is well aware of what’s probably happening to him, giving his fear and helplessness in the face of his delusions an undercurrent of sadness that makes them more realistic, and thus more effective. Nichols understands that for these scares to really stick with us, we need to genuinely care about the characters and relate to their pain. And stick with us they do, more forcefully (or, at least, in a different way) than what even the nastiest, most nihilistic horror flicks typically throw at us.
This is also the reason, I think, why Nichols chooses to give Take Shelter that naturalistic aesthetic, why he keeps the dialogue so grounded in everyday speech, why he doesn’t even jack up the conventional scares too far past believability. It’s important that the world of the movie looks just like our own, because the fears he’s working with are unnervingly familiar and close to home: losing one’s mind, certainly, but also the loss of family, home and security that follows. This is where the power of Jessica Chastain’s performance as Samantha really shines through; she makes the material and emotional stakes of Curtis’s affliction poignantly clear, but never lets her character revert to the entirely reactive victim she could easily have been. So many psychological horror movies try to do this, showing us the protagonist’s wonderful life before the encroaching madness strips it away. But it rarely has the emotional impact that it does here, because that good life is rarely so familiarly modest and so convincingly portrayed, and the protagonist’s loved ones are rarely such active participants in the fight against the darkness.
This is how you make a horror movie that really matters. It’s not just that Nichols makes his protagonist’s ordeal more affecting than most on a personal level; as David Edelstein writes, “his feelers for the country’s bad vibes are supernaturally keen.” He recognizes the horror potential of “a time when the Book of Revelation has entered mainstream politics, when each year brings a new prediction of the exact date the world will end, when hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and heat waves and melting ice caps and industrial accidents and no jobs and Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes are fixtures of our conscious and possibly unconscious lives.”[ii] Take Shelter came out ten years ago, and Michele Bachmann has mercifully receded from prominence, but it’s tough to celebrate when she’s been replaced by the forces of Trump, Cruz, and Hawley, and across the board, without exception, the topical fears that the movie explores have only gotten worse.
A horror movie turns out to be a grimly effective way to illuminate the darkest features of American society, and the range of these that Nichols is able to channel here, without the effort feeling forced, is remarkable. Some are plainly stated, and integral to the story; financial inequality, the obsessive binding of security to a certain type of employment, and the barbarity of the American healthcare system, are all clear factors in the danger that Curtis’s affliction poses to his family. Others are less clear-cut, but their presence is no less forcefully felt. The role of extreme weather in Curtis’s nightmares is a clear nod toward fears about the destructive forces of climate change. The movie also deals with overwrought individualism, toxic masculinity, and the American aversion to mental illness; even though Curtis is a sensitive guy who acknowledges his problem and seeks treatment, his sense of shame and tortured awkwardness as he does so, shows the insidiousness of these social pathologies. Most compellingly for me, the movie captures the uniquely American propensity for paranoia and conspiratorial thinking; it’s easy to imagine a family being similarly ruined by spiraling obsession with Judgment Day or QAnon or any number of other conspiracy theories.
David Simon, whose justly celebrated TV series The Wire was exploring many similar issues in a different way around the same time, had an incisive phrase that summed up his view of things: America as a horror show.[iii] Ten years after it came out, Take Shelter still illustrates that point as well as any movie I can think of, while still working remarkably well as a low-key, modestly scaled horror flick. Nichols scares us by showing the world as it is, not as it might be if upended by supernatural forces or horrors on the far outer reaches of possibility.
Or at least, that’s what he does until the mysterious ending, which throws everything into doubt. Some viewers may justifiably wonder why Nichols would abruptly jettison the realism that’s worked so well throughout the movie, but I rather liked it, and I have a guess as to what he’s up to. The impulse to end on a cliffhanger, on an oh-shit moment, is understandable, because this is a horror movie and horror movies don’t end with happy families relaxing on the beach. And I think there’s a thematic point to it as well, something about the way that Curtis’s affliction and the suffering it causes, or maybe just the broader social ills it represents, inevitably spread outwards and, one way or another, affect everybody in the society.
This is America, and it’s a horror show. And at the end of the day, except, perhaps, for a ruling few, no one is safe from the storm. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[iii] A great video of him talking through it with Bill Moyers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL6Jv2Jpnpg&t=1s