Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quick Cuts - Story Notes on the Movie Take Shelter

This movie demonstrates a central issue of storytelling, narrative tension. I define narrative tension as the tension a character feels to resolve or fulfill some issue, and the tension that increases as that character takes action. Romeo in Romeo and Juliet is a great example of narrative tension, because everything he does to act on his love for Juliet puts him in deeper conflict with his clan.

Novels that lack a main character in a state of narrative tension are often episodic, a series of events but lacking a clearly defined central conflict.

In Take Shelter, the main character is a blue collar worker of 35. The film opens with him standing outside in the rain, but the rain drops include oil. As the film continues, he has nightmares about a powerful, deadly storm, and also attacks on himself and his six year old, deaf daughter. But then he has a nightmare while awake. Are the nightmares a premonition of something looming or symptoms of mental illness? At 35, his mother began to experience the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

To save his family, he excavates around a tornado shelter using equipment he's borrowed from his job. This gets him fired, just before his deaf daughter is slated for an operation to restore her hearing. But he can't stop what he's doing if it means the safety of his family.

This film's main character is always in a state narrative tension that is accessible to the audience. He fears he's descending into mental illness, but if he's not, how does he save his family? But his actions to save his family threaten to tear his family apart and seem to prove he's mentally ill to those around him.

When he confesses what's happening, his loving wife helps him get through the aftermath of a storm, and they take a family vacation to a beach before he'll be put on a regime of drugs and institutionalization. While the father is on a beach with his daughter, the fear in her eyes causes him to look up. The monster storm he's seen in his visions is now approaching. As his wife comes out onto a vacation rental deck, she realizes the rain is mixed with oil.

That ends the film and answers the central question of the story, but raises more questions about how and why he was having these premonitions and why they manifested as nightmares about him and his daughter being attacked.

This film also demonstrates the difference between horror and psychological terror. In a typical Hollywood horror film, there are often a series of 'boo' moments, where some sudden action is designed to scare the audience. Here there's a creeping sense of terror that is transferred from the main character to the viewers of the film. I found the film much creepier and more horrifying than most of the horror films I've seen in the last ten years. A well-made, well-acted if unsettling film.


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