I really liked Take Shelter. As a drama it succeeded in building an emotional bridge between the audience and its characters, and as a thriller it kept the audience guessing about the sanity of its protagonist. The ending of Take Shelter is also well-crafted and multilayered, and is deftly executed by writer/director Jeff Nichols. However, this complexity also leads us to ask a fundamental question: did any of the things we just saw happen… happen?
I cannot pretend to know the actual answer to this question; as with any good head-scratcher, Take Shelter lends itself to many different interpretations. Nevertheless, based on several observations I made while watching the film, I think I can make a pretty educated guess on what Nichols had in mind. Please note that as this piece will discuss the meaning behind Take Shelter, spoilers abound. If you haven’t seen the film, I suggest you do so before reading on.
Take Shelter ends with a therapist telling Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) that he should go on vacation with his family to relax before committing himself to intensive treatment. The scene then abruptly jumps forward to Curtis playing with his daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) on a beach, while Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) watches from the house. Hannah looks up and signs to Curtis the word for storm, which the audience can recognize from earlier in the film.
As the sky begins to darken, Samantha exits the house as Curtis looks out over the ocean. The sky opens up and the thick, oily rain from the very first scene begins to fall. The storm is vindication for Curtis, as his wife suddenly realizes he was right all along about his desperate need to build a shelter. A hellish storm forms is reflected by the glass doors behind Samantha, and then the credits roll.
It is my opinion that the final scene of Take Shelter takes place entirely within the mind of Curtis LaForche. Our first clue that this scene is one of Curtis’ fantasies comes from Nichols’ directorial choices as the film draws to a close. Up until the final sequence, each event in the storyline was shown in a simple, logical order that never jumped ahead into the future. Conversely, Nichols used a different approach to bring the LaForche family to Myrtle Beach. We are shown little of the near-constant filler conversations we saw earlier in the film between Curtis and the other main characters before being thrown head first into Curtis’ supposed exoneration for his paranoid behavior.
Likewise, never before in the film were any of Curtis’ visions apparent to anyone but himself. However, with our glimpse of the storm toward the end, there are two major differences from previous storms. First of all, the storm is first shown in reflection, when all other storms are shown outright. This may be some indication that the storm is in fact a reflection of Curtis’ own desires to find justification for his fears. The other major difference is that before, Curtis was the only one experiencing his visions. With the storm at the film’s conclusion, the entire LaForche family is completely aware of the impending destruction. This fact is cemented first by Hannah signing the word for storm, and second by the strange, yellow liquid posing as rain.
It is actually this “rain” that set off my initial conjecture. While in a more dry interpretation Curtis may have had some sort of Biblical or science fiction-inspired visions preparing him for an a real, imminent catastrophe, and while the appearance of a major storm is not in and of itself an unbelievable phenomenon, oil falling like rain from the sky is quite surreal. In fact, when we saw the dark rain in the first scene, we were instantly alerted to the fact that Curtis was dreaming because the prospect of some industrial product falling from the sky was preposterous. Similarly, this dark rain in the final scene implies that what we are seeing is far removed from reality.
Indeed, Take Shelter spends a good deal of time helping the audience understand what is and is not reality, possibly in preparation for the final few moments of the film. I theorize, therefore, that Curtis’ family committed him before the scene on the beach for his early schizophrenic symptoms in the hope of treating him through counseling.
Whether they went on a vacation as their therapist suggests prior to his institutionalization is immaterial. What is important is that the events that we see of the LaForche family on the beach are almost certainly a product of Curtis’ mind. He is merely justifying his prior actions, and our limited perspective as an audience means that what we saw was not an accurate representation of the events as they actually occurred. What’s your interpretation of the ending? Is Curtis crazy, or do his visions designate him as a modern-day prophet?
A previous version of this article suggested the final storm is “only” shown in reflection. It has been amended to say “first” shown in reflection. (2/12/15)