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Take Shelter: A Different Kind of Movie

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

Too often when a movie company contacts NAMI to say they have released a film about schizophrenia, I cringe. More often than not, the film involves stereotypes and violence.

But Take Shelter isn’t one of those films.

It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past year, had a limited release last month in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., and is now showing in other locations. After receiving rave reviews from movie critics, Take Shelter is being pegged a contender for at least one Academy Award.

Schizophrenia is a vehicle that advances the story while the plot explores the boundaries between delusions and reality. The movie provides a nuanced, accurate portrayal of the onset of schizophrenia and the impact on a man’s family, but the theme is much larger. It is about a sense of apocalyptic fear in the turmoil of the early 21st century—which has included Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, tornadoes, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis and economic collapse.

In a small town in Ohio, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has nightmares that he tries to hide from his wife. He has apocalyptic visions of storm clouds and lightning—and growing paranoia. He loses himself building a storm shelter in his backyard. His strange behavior strains family relationships; he loses a friend; he is fired from his job.

Curtis’s mother lives with schizophrenia. His family history weighs on him as he reaches out for help from his family physician. However, he can’t afford to drive three hours to see a psychiatrist. He can hardly afford the co-pay on medication he needs to sleep. He sees a counselor briefly at the local free clinic, but when she leaves, an overburdened replacement goes back to square one: “Your mother has schizophrenia. Let’s start there.” Curtis leaves without a word.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of NAMI’s recent Psychosis: First Episode [PDF] report that found 40 percent of individuals who experienced psychosis said they spotted their symptoms on their own, while one-half of family and friends said they saw them first. “The dramatic difference in [these] perceptions may illustrate the complexity of symptoms and the challenge of discussing them openly,” said Ken Duckworth, M.D., medical director of NAMI, about the report. Take Shelter captures that confusion.

One critic in the Seattle Times notes that people may be “shaken and stirred” by the film. That’s especially so if they have personally experienced or witnessed psychosis; it’s intense. I wouldn’t necessarily show Take Shelter at a NAMI monthly meeting, but I would show it to a broader public event, followed by a panel discussion. It’s a film that one can take a friend to and say, “That’s what it was like for my family.” It’s a sympathetic rather than stigmatizing view of the onset of mental illness.

The end is dramatic, but creates a dilemma.

Delusions and hallucinations are often rooted in reality. Psychosis can include paranoia, but the reason people sometimes wrongly believe the CIA is spying on them is still rooted in the fact that the CIA does exist.

One Australian film critic has noted that if Take Shelter is simply one about mental illness, it ranks among the best. If not, then what is it about? Prophecy with a religious or spiritual dimension?

My NAMI colleague, Doug Bradley, who saw the film with me, wondered whether the plot could be seen as a case of reality reinforcing psychosis (“unlucky timing”), prophecy without psychosis (Curtis wasn’t sick after all) or psychosis with prophecy (the concept of a gift that results when a person loses touch with reality).

On the latter point, I wondered whether instead of first losing contact with reality, perhaps a person is so hypersensitive they sense a new reality before it arrives—which then results in psychosis. Doug’s translation: “Maybe being prophetic is like trying to drive on the highway when you’re seeing traffic now and as it will be in 10 minutes. You’re not wrong, but it would be confusing.”

Take Shelter was a thought-provoking, journey of a movie that blurred the line between reality and delusion. While attempting not to spoil the movie I, however, have one note of warning: Think twice before taking a vacation to Myrtle Beach.