Indeed, Melancholia, Take Shelter, and King Lear each use external, literal storms as analogs for mental disruption and turmoil, and, on a deeper level, for states of existential crisis.
If there is "nothing new under the sun,” perhaps I should not be surprised that the film I saw last night and the one I saw last week, Take Shelter and Melancholia respectively, remind me of Shakespeare’s great tragic play of the early 17th century with its doubling of chaos within and chaos without. But other critically well-received films this year, while they do not have the same doubling, also evidence a fear and unease, a mood that surely says something about the way we are all feeling about the state of things in our world: Margin Call with panic and corruption in the financial world; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with its return to the paranoia of the Cold War days; Drive with its lonely, violent anti-hero; Contagion with its fear of sudden, uncontrollable disease and death; The Ides of March with its corruption of the political system; Meek’s Cutoff with its dislocation of space and traditional structures; and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes with the downfall of the human race. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe every year has this sort of crop of gloomy films, and I’ve noticed it only now because I happened to watch Melancholia and Take Shelter back to back.
Whatever the case, I left the cinema last night after seeing Take Shelter, and the same oppressive spirit of a few days ago, relative to Melancholia, weighed upon me again. The driving rain on my windshield seemed ominous; I did not have the sense I usually have when I drive in my rainy home state, that sense of triumphant cozy comfort within, barring all damp wet from without. No, this time, my car didn’t seem such a happy, peaceful shelter. Like Take Shelter’s main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), I needed something more than the ordinary to keep out the storm. While Curtis suffers from what seems to be exclusively personal hallucinations, paranoia, and nightmares - mental disorders born of his genes more than anything else - I still could not help but see myself and feel my own fears in Curtis.
We are introduced to Curtis’s nightmares in the very opening scenes of the film; in fact, we are thrust, without knowing our location at first, directly into one of his nightmares, a storm. His nightmares and his hallucinations contain similar elements throughout the film: a storm builds or rages; the sky and clouds and even the birds shift into phantasmagoric shapes; rain pours down as an oily substance; Curtis must save his vulnerable, deaf daughter from the storm or from shadowy figures who come to snatch her; people he trusts behave strangely, threateningly; he must exert great physical effort to withstand the assaults or to act as savior in the midst of the assaults.
As the film goes on and Curtis continues to struggle - his fears about his sanity increasing, his behavior increasingly bizarre and unaccountable to his family - we begin to see, at least, we think we begin to see, the real things, the real fears that have triggered Curtis’s nightmares, and it is in understanding and sympathizing with these fears that Curtis takes shape, not as someone who is merely an individual suffering from some mental disease (though it may be that, too), but as someone who represents the responses to more universal fears.
In spite of the intensity of some of Curtis’s nightmares, the film builds our understanding of Curtis’s world and his fears very slowly, with small clues. It is a film unafraid of demanding patience and unafraid of lingering shots, and Curtis is a man of few words, whose silence we often long to break, especially given the turmoil that we know lies beneath. We come to understand his daughter’s deafness and isolation, and we see his desire to protect her; as he sits by her bed at night, we feel his fear for her. We come to see a possible disunion between Curtis and Samantha’s family, when Samatha’s father comments, accusingly, over a Sunday afternoon meal, “We didn’t see you in church again this morning, Curtis.” We come to understand something of the precarious economic situation, both of the family and of the community. Samantha sews pillows and other handmade items and sells them each Saturday, not, we sense, because she loves to sew, but because their family needs the extra money; we see her carefully stowing the money away in a tin, notably, not depositing the money at the bank. We come to understand that Curtis fears repeating the sins of his parents, particularly his mother's; he fears for his daughter a repetition of his own childhood, and he fears what he has inherited.
All of these fears while utterly believable and unique in terms of this film and in terms of this character, are also uneasily universal, and they seem particularly resonant with the general unrest of our times, the unemployment and economic depression, the obsession with parenting and fears about raising our children just perfectly, the fears that we’ve inherited political and economic structures from those that have gone before us that will collapse in disarray.
And so when Curtis begins to give in to his nightmares, acting according to those visions as truths - when he takes out a risky loan, when jeopardizes his job, when he begins spending money on things that are not conceivably practical, when his behavior seems to put a hope for his daughter’s healing at risk - the tension is almost unbearable. His giving into his visions seem only to bring his fears to life more quickly, and we long for him to stop, to just be reasonable, to, at the very least, speak openly to someone about those fears – and so, we hope, to exorcise them. You are only creating more quickly, we want to say, what it is that you fear most.
King Lear’s Fool – standing in a long line of truth tellers who live on the fringe and can thus see more clearly than anyone else – says of the storm, the setting of Lear’s downfall, “This cold night will turn us all fools and madmen” (3.4.77-8). And when we understand the play, we understand that the madman is not really the fool; it is not he who is the one out of touch. We understand that it is only through devastating madness that Lear begins to see the truth about himself and about the world.
In Melancholia Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the anti-social depressive, becomes the visionary and the artist, the one in whom the ordinary, rational folk might take shelter and find comfort when everything around collapses. In Take Shelter, Curtis is the madman, the one alienates himself by his mental state and his behavior from the normal society around him. Whether, by the end, Curtis is still just a frightening madman or a kind of Shakespearean wise fool, I think only each viewer can decide. Curtis’s state, his visions, will speak truthfully to you about our world or they will seem only like foolishness.
For my part, in considering this film, the last lines of King Lear - when the king is dead, Cordelia is dead, and all is brokenness – resonate both clearly and truthfully, reflecting the fearful spirit of our times: