“Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true/But you and I know what this world can do/So let’s make our steps clear so the other may see/And I’ll wait for you/If I should fall behind/Wait for me.” I was thinking of that Bruce Springsteen song (which I first heard—and prefer—as a cover by Jeffrey Foucault) as I re-watched Take Shelter (2011; free on Amazon Prime).
Some movies I like because they have a singular focus or tell a story based around a single theme. Others resist easy analysis and bring up layers of meaning around multiple themes. They tell a unified story, but the ambiguities present in both the lives of the characters, as well as in the lives of the viewers (in my life), prevent me from saying what the movie is “about.” Indeed, the best stories have to be experienced, rather than analyzed.
I could say that Take Shelter is “about” mental illness, or “about” a family trying to survive crises both internal and external to them, including a deaf child, or that it is “about” a kind of apocalypse. But none of those descriptions really get to the heart of the film itself, which—at least to me—eludes attempts to pull its individual threads out of the whole garment.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is caught in the web of what it means to be a man, husband, and father. He presents himself, at first, as having everything under control, providing for his family, and taking care of himself. All of that self-understanding is threatened as he finds himself experiencing terrifying dreams and hallucinations, all centered around not-quite-earthly storms. Someone else in his position might write off such things as simple, or at least somewhat normal, nightmares. But Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was a child, which causes him to question his sanity more than he otherwise would.
But even with his own doubts about the reality of what he’s experiencing, he can’t shake the compulsion to prepare for the storm that he believes is coming. And in the process of that preparation, he loses his job, his best friend, and nearly every other relationship outside his immediate family.
“You and I know what this world can do.”
Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), vacillates as Curtis’s actions become more unpredictable, but she never lets go completely. The moment where she would leave, if she were going to, would be at the community meal. Instead, she cradles and guards and protects him as they leave. (Apparently, the extras in this scene did not know what they were going to witness, and the shock on their faces seems genuine.)
“We said we’d walk together, baby, come what may/That come the twilight should we lose our way/If as we’re walking a hand should slip free/I’ll wait for you/And should I fall behind/Wait for me.” Twilight does indeed fall around them, and even if his hand slips free for a moment, Samantha waits for him.
The question that the film asks of the viewer is whether or not Curtis is really losing his grip on reality. Or is it everyone else who refuses to see the reality that only Curtis can see? We all evaluate claims and predictions the best we can with the evidence we have. We consider a given individual’s past declarations, and the reasons for why the person thinks what he or she does. Does the event seem like a real possibility? I sometimes wonder about the times when dozens or even hundreds of people have believed in the nearness of the world’s end. What convinced them that this time the prediction must be true? We have Jesus’ words that no one knows the day or the hour of the end, but that does not rule out other predictions about the way things will be. In the end, though, the only way we know for certain whether someone is correct is if the event happens or not.
In the final scene, Samantha seems to see the reality that she couldn’t see in the storm shelter, but even that is ambiguous. Perhaps she has only entered into the delusion herself. Because we’re watching as well, we are inclined to believe in the reality of what they (think they) see, but because it is a movie, we are unsure. I doubt we can definitively answer that question, but what is certain is that Samantha chooses Curtis and their daughter over continuing to believe that he is delusional. “We swore we’d travel, darlin’, side by side/We’d help each other stay in stride/But each lover’s steps fall so differently/But I’ll wait for you/And if I should fall behind/Wait for me.”
Isn’t this the end of Ephesians 5? Not just a picture of a husband giving everything for his wife; we all know no husband ever loves his wife as he ought, or as Christ loves the Church. There is a picture of Christ here, who will stop at nothing to give shelter to His bride, to His family. He will give up everything, even His own life. Even when one of His best friends lifts up his hand against Him in betrayal; even though His Bride not only threatens Him, but crucifies Him, He will go all the way. And when He has died, and when He rises again, He begins to capture the members of His Body. He begins to gather His Bride, the Church, to Himself. And then, finally, she sees that there is no shelter but the one that He gives. She sees, as at the end of the movie, the storm of sin and death on the horizon, and she takes shelter in the only refuge there is: her Head, her Lord, her Husband. Finally, the Bride sees what her Bridegroom sees, and she submits to His eternal love.
“Sam,” Curtis says, urging her to turn around and follow him. “Okay,” she says.
“Darling, I’ll wait for you./Should I fall behind/Wait for me.”