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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Take Shelter

Introduction

Take Shelter was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, and released in 2011. It won 33 awards, including several at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a family man in his thirties, called Curtis LaForche, who starts to believe that he is in the early stages of developing paranoid schizophrenia. His mother was diagnosed with the illness when she was a similar age and he is fearful of suffering the same fate.

Set in Ohio, USA, a state used to storms and tornadoes, the film brilliantly explores Curtis’ increasing fixation on the need to prepare for an apocalyptic storm that he believes is coming.

With superb acting by Michael Shannon, who plays Curtis and Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife Samantha, the film also offers an opportunity to consider the challenges of parenting their deaf child, Hannah, played by Tova Stewart who is hearing impaired in real life.

Take Shelter

The Film

The film opens with a dream sequence in which Curtis experiences the arrival of a terrifying storm. Brown oily rain falls from the sky as a tornado gathers itself on the horizon. Several more similar nightmares ensue and in one of them the family dog bites his arm. After waking he continues to feel the pain of that dog bite throughout the rest of the day causing him to house the dog outside for the first time ever and alarming his wife.

He does not share any of these bad dreams with her at this stage although the nightmares cause Curtis to question his psychological health and he takes a trip to the library to borrow books on mental illness. At the same time he begins to review the adequacy of the family’s storm shelter in their garden, as a part of him also believes that the dreams are premonitions of a catastrophic storm to come. Meanwhile, Hannah, their young daughter who is profoundly deaf, finally gets the go ahead from Curtis’ health insurance policy to have cochlear implant surgery after many months of waiting. Samantha is both relieved and excited as she prepares her daughter for the operation.

It is only after one very frightening dream in which he wakes to find that he has wet the bed that Curtis visits his family doctor to ask for sleeping tablets. The doctor is reluctant but agrees to a short course whilst suggesting that Curtis see a psychiatrist.

He does not do this but instead visits the free state counseling service where he starts by giving a comprehensive self diagnosis on the basis of his ‘delusions and hallucinations’, suggesting that he has schizophrenia. By this time, his abnormal beliefs and extreme anxiety have been noticed by his close friend and work colleague who reluctantly agrees to help him borrow a work place digger to extend the storm shelter in Curtis’ garden.

When Samantha discovers Curtis’ project she is horrified by the costs involved and concerned about his health. Curtis reveals to her that he has borrowed money for the storm shelter construction project thereby increasing their financial pressures. It is only when his boss finds out about the borrowed digger that Curtis loses his job and his health insurance with it. This in turn means that Hannah cannot have her cochlear surgery.

After the loss of his job he has an angry outburst at a community dinner in which he warns everyone about the pending storm danger. This is followed by the arrival of a real storm which allows the family to test out Curtis’ new shelter, but after the storm clears he is unable to leave the shelter, despite his wife’s reassurance that all is clear, convinced that he can still ‘hear it and feel it’.

He finally agrees to visit a psychiatrist who suggests that medication will help but that a vacation away from the storm shelter at home is also advisable. With the loving support of his wife, who tells him firmly that she will not leave him, they go on their planned beach holiday.

In an ambiguous ending all of the family witness a storm at the beach in which oily brown rain falls from the sky and a large tornado is seen on the horizon. Perhaps this ending leaves the viewer questioning their own understanding of the film in the same way that Curtis has been struggling to understand his perceptions.

 

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Take Shelter is a film about mental illness and the diagnostic difficulties that mental health professionals may encounter when assessing patients who present with delusions. In particular it offers viewers an opportunity to think about and detail the possible causes for Curtis’ presenting symptoms in the context of his anxiety about the family history of paranoid schizophrenia in his mother.

The film also demonstrates the importance of exploring the context of someone’s delusional beliefs. It is because Curtis lives in a geographically storm prone area that the mental health professional must be sure that his beliefs are inappropriately extreme and abnormal when compared to others around him.

For those teaching students of mental health, this film invites a discussion of the presenting symptoms that are necessary to definitively diagnose paranoid schizophrenia and offers a wider consideration of delusional disorders as a part of schizophrenia spectrum disorders. An article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment earlier this year called Recent developments in the management of delusional disorders by Christopher Fear (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2013)19: 212-220, abstract), brings the topic up to date and would be very helpful reading material alongside a viewing of Take Shelter.

 

  • More information about Take Shelter can be found at IMDB, as can a short trailer.
  • Take Shelter can be purchased from amazon.co.uk.
  • Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida.

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About this blog

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida

Dr Almeida is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

 


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