Saturday, October 22, 2011

Take my advice and take shelter from "Take Shelter"....

In his October 17th review of the movie "Take Shelter" in The New Yorker, David Denby states that our protagonist, the apparently paranoid-schizophrenic young husband/father Curtis (played by Michael Shannon) is "definitely paranoid" but "not totally crazy."

On the screen we watch Curtis conjure -- in his mind only -- terrifying and ominous lightning storms, tornadoes, and clouds of menacing crows. He loses his job while rebuilding a tornado (aka bomb) shelter in his back yard, loses his closest friend, and nearly loses his marriage. It's a movie about mental illness with all the cliches about mental illness: the delusional "crazy" man doing delusional "crazy" things.

David Denby, on the other hand, sees a greater metaphor, that, for me, was sorely lacking and, if it exists at all, is beat to death by the ponderous and repetitive takes of Curtis' twitching eye or his wife Samantha's (Jessica Chastain) full-lipped, red-haired stares of incredulity. Denby states that "Take Shelter" could become as iconic an image of this moment of American unease as Edvard Munch’s 'The Scream' has become for all the anxieties of modern life.

Did I miss something? This movie drowns itself in the tired fantastical notion of what too many people consider mental illness to be. In real life, mental illness often drags along those suffering from it day after day. Drags along, drags down. Drags. Sure, there may be drama, but it's often a more quiet, insidious drama, or any number of small dramas piling up one atop the other. There is no ridiculously dramatic soundtrack in real life, and, if there's a denouement, it exists, as in all of life, in death.

Admittedly, this is my soapbox rant -- I've dealt with mental health issues, and have been an advocate for mental health education, all my life. It is something I know intimately. It's an illness, not an "attitude problem". You can't fix it by "pulling up your bootstraps" or "looking on the bright side", just as you can't cure emphysema or diabetes or cancer by "bucking up". And furthermore, if someone close to you came to you with a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness other than mental illness, would you tell them that they just need to be more positive?

It's a condition for which, often, you need the meds so that you have the where-with-all to ask for the meds. That's where, for me, the "crazy" part comes in. It's insidious. Confounding. Enraging. Life-destroying.

When I say I know this intimately, I don't say it lightly. My first husband's death was caused by untreated -- or, actually, self-medicated -- mental illness. Two days prior to his car accident, he agreed, finally, to seek help. Too late.

Mental illness played a major role in the disintegration of my second marriage. I've intervened in attempted suicides (yes, plural) and have initiated and participated in less life-threatening interventions, some of which have been successful, some not. There's no "fix". There's no cure. Brain science is primitive at best, but when something works, when a medication allows life to happen, with a degree of happiness and success that would otherwise flat-out not be impossible, then by god, bring on the meds.

If I hadn't been sitting smack in the middle of the theater last night, I would've walked out -- and I had the notion to do that several times.

Towards the end of "Take Shelter", we see Curtis and his wife speaking to a psychiatrist who suggests in-patient treatment. I thought -- okay, this is a redeeming moment on the part of the film-maker. He might have slammed us with cliches, but at least at the end, he's taking a responsible role. (Although I thoroughly expected to hear the words "insane asylum" at any moment.) But my relief was short-lived: he throws it all away in the closing scene, and I left the theater spitting nails. (With apologies to my movie companion.)

Denby goes on to say that "the movie makes you uncomfortable, but in a good way." Oh please. Let's ditch the horror-movie romanticizing of mental illness. I know -- no one made me go to this movie. It was my choice, but based on a review by a critic whose writing I respect. And who let me down.


  1. Is this supposed to be a feel good movie? Is it a documentary?

    Hollywood has always treated mental disorders in an unrealistic manner, it seems -- but then, I never watch those movies, so I probably don't know what I'm talking about.

    Love, C.

  2. Not gonna be on my 'must see' list. Sometimes when one has intimate knowledge of a subject, it is obvious when a story 'gets it wrong.'

    Thanks for the warning!

  3. Interesting -- I never trust David Denby as his reviews are generally incredibly mean-spirited when they're "bad" and I think he likes pretty cliche stuff. My younger sister has struggled with serious clinical depression for most of her adult life -- several hospitalizations, medications up the wazoo and even electroshock therapy. I can attest to it being a disease and can only shake my head as the healthcare system stumbles on through with the culture at large tripping behind --

  4. as Elizabeth says, i wont even read Denby's reviews. I love Anthony Lane, he's smart, and his snarkiness always make me laugh. but Denby is decidedly second rate. i really appreciate your expansion on your reaction; makes me feel like i would have a similar response.

  5. Foxessa, definitely not a documentary. A drama. More like a "feel bad" movie.

  6. Elizabeth & Susan, I'm more of an Anthony Lane fan too, but I can usually guess whether I'll like a movie based on either what he or David Denby writes. Not so this time. A waste of $.

    In any case, I was able to get up on my soapbox and write about a subject that's been simmering on my back burner for some time now.

    Case closed!

  7. I've been depressed off and on, more on than off, for most of my life since the age of eight. I've been on anti-depressant for the past eighteen years, my how times flies when you're having fun.

    Five and half years ago I came to the point of suicide and decided I needed to change my life. I used cognitive behavior therapy and journaling to deal with the darkest part of my depression. I exercise, take my pills, take Vitamin D and still the black dog finds me. It's something I struggle with everyday. Mostly though, it's a dangerous, deadly disease.

    Think I'll skip the movie. Thanks for the heads up:)

  8. Yes. Thank you for this. Thank you again for this. Now I'm going back to bed for an hour before I get up for work. Hello, T!

  9. RK: you are most welcome. It's my mission, I think.