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A Sense of an Ending: Take Shelter's Inconclusive Apocalypse

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article NOTE: This feature includes spoilers for Take Shelter, I am Legend and The Road.

Ever since Freud it has been a truism that our nightmares are our disguised desires - the things we really want but can’t say we want - so we re-enact them as horrifying, thrilling dreams which can be reviled even as we rehearse and dwell on them, coming back to them again and again. The end of the world is one such nightmare in which the fantasy lurks almost too readily. Look at the Will Smith vehicle I am Legend (2007). Here the veneer of actual anxiety is fairly thin. Yes, his family dies. Yes, everybody else has become vampiric zombies. But look at that sports car car. And hunting animals without guilt. And New York without people; running red lights; watching Shrek; playing golf off of an aircraft carrier. The Omega Man (1971) is a little more confused and complex because it actually engages with some political subplot, but I am Legend is post-political. Politics died with all those people. Women have become mannequins, and the only meaningful relationship a boy needs is with his dog. In fact, the one time we see Neville actually grieve is not when his wife and poppet die, but when his dog has become infected. (I explore the relationship between dog ownership and the end of days in more detail in this article.)

Of course, there are less recreational and more bracing versions of the End. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac Macarthy’s The Road (2009) gave us an austere, chilly apocalypse. Whereas I am Legend wears its comfortable narcissism in its title (the original ironic meaning of which from the Richard Mattheson novel is utterly lost) and allows its protagonists all the comforts of home, The Road makes any such sheltering temporary and brief, and reaffirms the nightmarish by extending it to those we love. Ultimately we can imagine all sorts of terrible things happening to us, and we will instinctively (even if falsely) believe in our own inevitable survival. That is not the most terrifying thing. But imagine those same things happening to our loved ones, and in particular to our children, and suddenly the childish fantasy of our resilience falls to pieces. Viggo Mortenssen as the father is willing to do anything, careless of his own safety, his own comfort, his hunger, even his own sense of morality and justice - all of these things can be and will be sacrificed when it comes to protecting his child. And it is up to the child to re-teach his father the humanity he loses in trying to protect his son.

What complicates this Hallmark kind of sentiment - ‘we give everything to our children; and then they give it back’ - is the untrustworthy woman. The mother, played by Charlize Theron, defies the stereotype of the mother who will sacrifice everything for her children, but she also and perhaps more importantly is a counter-voice against the very imperative of survival. She speaks the ‘Yes, but…’ and unpicks the fantasy that must lie at the heart of the wish to survive. Any survivable nightmare in this sense becomes fantasy. The mother sees the nightmare as nightmare alone, with no element of redemptive potential. Life is only valuable so long as it is enjoyable, or so long as there is a possibility of joy. Without that, with the piano turned to firewood, the mother feels no duty to survive, or for that matter to facilitate her son’s survival. In his voice-over, the father retells her departure as a moment of helplessness. He couldn’t save her; he feels guilt in acquiescing in her decision; but is there also secret relief? ‘I’m here. Your son is here. Who gives a fuck about the piano?’ is what he should say, but instead he pleads with her to stay one more night: ‘At least wait until the morning.’ Her will is stronger than his. She comforts him and in so doing seems more like his mother than his wife. She has become all women in being the last woman. The voiceover attempts to eulogise the moment, an insistent rewriting of the traumatic abandonment: ‘…And she was gone. The coldness was her final gift.’ Really? Her selfish decision not to go on living is written as an act of ultimate consideration, self-sacrifice? And where is this voiceover situated? Is it the voice of the dead father? It doesn’t voice bitterness or anger, both of which would be understandable, but rather tries to contain it. Turn it into something soft. Like poetry.

The ending of The Road and the ending of I am Legend both prove difficult. When the whole film is about the End how do you end it? I am Legend has two very distinct endings. In one, Neville dies; in the other he lives. One hints at a fragmentary surviving humanity amongst vampires, the other leaves them as the CGI monsters. This indecisiveness, the filmmaker’s very own dissatisfaction and second guessing of the audience, is telling. The dilemma is the fantasy, the nightmare is the dream, the solution is the banal waking up to the morning routine. Likewise, The Road, having deconstructed notions of family and civilisation, capitulates to the most insipid nuclear family dreamt up by some grungy IKEA advertising campaign. Of course the hope is slight and contingent, and it is all too consistent with McCarthy’s book, and yet again one can’t help but feel that the promised end has in fact been delayed. Life will restart; families reform; civilization will pick itself up again. If history is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, then the apocalypse is that waking up, and when it doesn’t fully occur we slip back into the nightmare.

As recently noted in my Alternate Take on Rampart (2011), there have of late been a whole series of American films that have anticipated their own finishing point, refusing to close off their narratives with some conventional frame, and preferring to leave the audience hanging. To name all the films would be to enter too far into spoiler territory, but if you’ve been watching films for the last twelve months I’m sure you’ll be able to think of a few. Take Shelter (2011) could have been forgiven for taking this route. Perhaps arguably it does. The film tells the story of a working class family, who struggle to make ends meet but are doing okay. Except that the patriarch of the family, Curtiss (played with incredible restraint and then intensity by Michael Shannon) is having dreams of an oncoming storm which rains piss-coloured motor oil. These dreams become increasingly intrusive and violent, with people attacking the family, or Curtiss. Curtiss suspects he is experiencing the initial stages of schizophrenia, a condition from which his mother suffers. His matter-of-fact attempts to deal with his condition, without alerting or alarming his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) - he visits the doctor, goes to counselling, reads books on mental illness - is paralleled by an equally methodical approach to the dreams. His dog bites him in a dream and so he builds the dog a cage; a good friend attacks him at work so he asks the boss to move the man to another team. However, these actions worsen his situation, and when he begins to build his family a shelter from the storm, he spends money they don’t have and risks destroying everything in his life even as he seeks to protect his family. To make matters worse, his daughter is deaf and requires an expensive ear operation.

The tension and drama of the film is based on its ability to keep the audience guessing between the possibility that Curtiss is mad and that he is actually a prophet, a latter-day Noah. Weirdly, cinema tends to prefer the reality of the delusion over the constricting and ultimately boring psychiatric explanation. Think of the number of times we have heard someone say in a movie ‘I know it sounds crazy but….’ Or ‘You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind, but…’ Popular cinema often lives in the sequel to this ‘but…’ Spiderman can climb walls, the aliens are coming, the world is going to end. When the ending goes the other way it is almost always accompanied by a feeling of deflation: think of the endings of Brazil (1985), or Jacob’s Ladder (1990). In Take Shelter we share Curtiss’ delusions so we’re with him all the way. His madness, if madness it is, is our madness - but we’d rather it not be madness. Eating trash out of a dumpster, as Curtiss describes his own mother’s descent into insanity, is much scarier than the world ending, which is, after all, cinematic.

When Curtiss finally blows up at a church social and shouts at the community, he is Abrahamic. It is a liberating moment. Finally. And Michael Shannon’s performance kicks up a gear and goes from being good to being brilliant. That scene is worth considering closely. It is almost the clichéd moment of the gunslinger who has put down his guns and foresworn violence, who is pushed and pushed and pushed until he finally tells everyone what he thinks. It is a moment of savage and almost joyful honesty. Curtiss, his eyes shining, cuts through the etiquette and petty bullshit of being sane and giving a shit what your neighbours think. Who doesn’t want to shout out ‘There’s a storm coming unlike anything you’ve ever seen’…?

When the storm does hit, the family retreat to the shelter but is this The Storm or simply a storm? And here is the first possible ending. With the storm apparently over (something his wife thinks but he does not), Curtiss has to open the storm doors and prove to himself that his delusions are just that. He does so and there is a blinding light. Is it daylight? Is it the End? ...Titles.

But no. This isn’t where the film ends, and there should be a measure of support for not ending here - it really would have been lazy and non-committal. No: instead, people are picking up fallen branches and sweeping up the mess. Life goes on. Curtiss realises he is delusional. Family embrace. As with A Beautiful Mind, a nutty man is saved by the love of a beautiful woman. A psychiatrist is consulted who tells them that Curtiss will need to spend time in a residential facility, so it has come to pass. The family will be broken up. On the beach, however, taking a holiday on the advice of their psychiatrist, the storm turns up and this time everyone sees it.

The film has made its decision, and Curtiss seems to be redeemed as a genuine visionary. His wife sticks out her hand and the motor oil rain begins splashes on her fingers. ‘Okay,’ she says, in acceptance. Cut to black.

Many chat rooms, blogs and reviews have abounded with theories about the ending, which is oddly thought to be ambiguous. This ambiguity is really a projection of the audiences’ wish for the film to continue to play its game. The apocalypse should always be approaching - forever imminent - but never actually get here. In fact, the film ends with the approach rather than the storm itself. And so perhaps this last scene is actually another dream, though the grammar of the film would not seem to support this reading. Or perhaps there is an element of hope in that at least Curtiss is reunited with his family. One criticism might be that this is really a science fiction ending, a Twilight Zone like twist. An ‘a-ha!’ And that gotcha undermines the careful, subtle psychological stuff.

But surely this is all ignoring the huge God-shaped hole in the film. As with the massively popular Left Behind books by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and the modern American evangelicals popularizing the Rapture as a belief, the film is fuelled by an End of Days mentality. Curtiss is simply a man blessed with visions of the divine will. He prepares the ark but at the last moment fails in the last test of faith. He is seduced by his rationality, the secular forces of modern medicine and love for his wife and daughter. His wife has that can-do spirit, even when confronted with him at his worse she manages to come up with a plan of action, but her love for him and her compassion is just another trick of the devil. Her final realisation is in part his revenge. The ending is a huge ‘I told you so.’ And this is a happy ending. Why? Because the flipside of Christian love is huge, liberating hatred. Luke says it with the lines that Slavoj Zizek is so mightily fond of quoting: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple” [14:26].

Of course, we could also go down the ecological road (dying birds, motor oil rain etc.), but that wouldn’t be so much an alternate reading as a complement, a detail, the how but not the why, compared with the overarching narrative logic of Revelation. The triumphant music that closes the film attests not only to Curtiss’ triumph over his pillar of salt wife, but also to the liberation of the realisation of the last nightmare. That’s why the film doesn’t need a priest, and why it can do without any conventional Christian citations; even an atheist like me can enjoy the coming deluge. By promoting the one big fear, we are released from all the little fears. Finding a new job, following the psychiatrist’s advice, saving for the little girl’s operation, putting up with the constant surveillance of the loving wife… all will dissolve into air. Thank God I’m not mad, Curtiss thinks as Armageddon approaches. It reminds me of a scene in the 1984 spy spoof Top Secret. Val Kilmer (as Nick Rivers) is being tortured and, overcome with pain, he passes out. In a dream scene, he is running down a school corridor, desperate not to be late for the exam, but when he bumps into a teacher he’s told that the exam was yesterday and he has missed it. Kilmer wakes up in the torture chamber; “Thank God,” he laughs with relief: it was only a dream.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine.

This article was published on March 10, 2012.

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