Take Shelter

Not sure I can recommend this flick, but it’s worth talking about why.

First, the good news: It’s one of the most interesting character study films I’ve seen in a while.  For those who don’t know, a character study is a film whose overt plot is just an excuse to delve into the inner workings of a troubled soul’s mind.  The overall plot doesn’t really matter that much, except insofar as it drives our main character’s actions and reveals his character.

Now, the bad news: In this instance we’re watching a protagonist convinced that Very Bad Things are coming, and no one around him believes it.  Even he isn’t quite sure that Very Bad Things are coming, and yet he is torn between a need to do what he feels right and a need to care for others – none of whom believe his warnings.

If that doesn’t describe most of my regular readers, I don’t know what does.

We’re all feeling the high pressure that moves in before the breaking of a big storm.  It could be war.  It could be a plague.  It could be economic devastation.  And just for fun, it could be all three at once.  With the modernist errors running unchecked in the world for so long, we have certainly earned a biblical level chastisement.  And those of us fighting the spiritual war often run headlong into the resistance of our friends and family, who either have more faith in or refuse to see the rotting timbers that undergird our way of life.  In that respect, this is a very uncomfortable film to watch, made all the worse because of an important complication.

General Zod ain’t playing around.

That complication is that our main character might just be crazy.  His belief of the Very Bad Thing Coming stems from vivid dreams and visions that only he can see.  Even he recognizes that his visions might be the symptom of a damaged mind.  He seeks help from the medical establishment.  He does his own research.  He is plagued with doubt.

And yet…things keep happening that prove his gut instincts are right.  Things that should convince others, but don’t, because they have their own battles to fight.  Or because the things that happen are things that only happen because of his efforts to prevent them from happening – which the Doubting Thomas types read as him self-fulfilling his own prophecies.

Where a lot of films of this type stumble, this one shines.  The wife progresses through a natural and believable escalation of emotion, from concern to mistrust to an understanding that brings its own challenges.  It’s organic and real and great watching, and the performances are stellar.  Before long, the question of whether the prophet speaks true or not takes on a secondary importance.  What profit a man to survive the Very Bad Thing, if he lose everything and everyone around him in the process?

And yet, the opposite phrasing becomes equally important:  what profit a man to keep everything and everyone he loves if they are all doomed to ruination by the Very Bad Thing?  This is the central tension our protagonist – and we along with him – feel throughout the film.  But it isn’t a movie about the answers.  It’s a movie about the questions.  About how much of our inner Prophet we reveal to the world around us.  About how we juggle the struggles of day to day life with the heavy cloud of death hanging over us.  About how we prepare for uncertain futures, and the cost to our concrete present.  It’s about how we negotiate with our loved ones, who see the world through glasses far more rose-colored than our own.

It’s deep.  It’s troubling.  And though I loved every minute of it…it’s a hard one to recommend.

As a post-script: the film does resolve whether he was right or not by the end.  You get your answer, even if it isn’t entirely satisfying.