In a sense, all films are allegorical, and usually we are glad they are. After all, films are supposed to provide expanded meaning, and few methods accomplish this better than stories that rest on allegories. However, film allegories are sometimes cheap “gotcha” devices: you thought the film was about one thing when actually (we are often told) it’s about something else, if you are willing to go along.
We all know now that movies like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is really about communist subversion in the U.S. You can read the story on its surface. Or you can read it for sinister politics. It’s a little harder maybe to follow a Spider-Man movie as an expression of a teen’s budding maturity and his need to prove himself, but there you are: believe it or not.
A website maintained by Daniel Field called “Read Junk” (http://www.readjunk.com/articles/hollywoods-10-most-controversial-political-allegories-on-film/) discusses allegory in ten films you might not at first suspect as allegorical. I’ll just mention a few: Saw is really about Maoist China; Fight Club down deep was financed by the C.I.A. to toughen American youth; and 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually a primer on Scientology. The topper is the innocent Stand by Me, which to Field is an allegory about homosexuality.
I am happy to report that our December film is plausible allegory. The film is called Take Shelter; it’s about a construction worker who feels something bad is about to descend on the land, which is rural Ohio. Undeniably strange things are perceived by our main character, who goes by Curtis LaForche in the film. Rain thick as motor oil falls; birds dance in the sky in near-unbelievable patterns. The pet dog attacks the head of the household and furniture levitates.
Only Curtis perceives these phenomena. There is rain in the story, but most likely it takes the form of ordinary drops of H2O.
Might there be plausible explanations for all this weirdness? At first you want to believe there are. But apparently alone in his bizarre perceptions, he seems to be a nutcase or a seer.
(Here is a video of avian coordinated air dancing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH-groCeKbE . But what Curtis perceives is far more elaborate, and as I say, fanciful.)
Curtis finally commits himself to a mental hospital, but your curiosity, your movie mind-quest is not satisfied. You can’t help but go allegorical. You broaden the meaning of the film. You understand that Curtis is the uncomfortable soothsayer, the tortured oracle. Your mind ranges from apocalypse to apocalypse—environmental, nuclear, destructive weather, global contagion.
Director Jeff Nichols has built a reputation for himself as a maker of small but compelling art films. Critic Alissa Wilkinson calls Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories, a wise, measured tale of family and revenge.” (It also stars Shannon).
Marjorie Baumgarten has written: “Take Shelter is a deeply unsettling movie. Nichols … doles out information as strategy economically as a government official. Curtis doesn’t confide in [his wife] Samantha [Jessica Chastain from The Tree of Life] until late in the story, although his increasingly erratic behavior becomes harder for everyone to ignore. What Nichols excels at in his storytelling is mixing these strange events with life’s mundanities. Normalcy and abnormality fluidly co-exist in Take Shelter, and it’s sometimes a challenge for the viewer to know which is which.”
Wilkinson augments her point of view with a poem by Auden:
“Not so long ago, the poet W. H. Auden wrote of the ‘Age of Anxiety’—
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out
The music must always play …
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.”
Maybe the poetic sensibility delivers more of what we need to understand Take Shelter.