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.