Take Shelter

Jessica Chastain as Samantha LaForche in ``Take Shelter.''This marks my fourth attempt to begin this review. I’ve already started it three different times with three different sentences that I have subsequently backspaced into a sparkling white oblivion.

My other opening salvos talked about Take Shelter’s:

1. Excellent Suspense
2. Impressive containment of its scope
3. Above average characterization

and all those beginnings were erased because they did not capture the defining quality of Take Shelter. The fact that:

4. There is ALMOST a locomotive quality to the read.

[And man do I love to read scripts that have that quality. My personal screenwriting goal is TO WRITE a script that has that quality. ]

All those false starts were symptomatic of the same mistake rookie writers (like me) have been making sense the dawn of cuneiform. We sat down to write—without knowing what we wanted to say. In the end, the irony was delicious.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.

Part A) It should count as half my answer on this question that I did not make a single note about exposition until page 39:

It’s fine. It’s fine. You know
your husband’s company actually has
very good insurance when it kicks
in. Not a lot of jobs offer
policies half as good. You’re very

I’m on the fence about whether this is natural exposition or not. Clearly, we need to know how important it is that Curtis keeps his job (his daughter’s cochlear implants can’t be paid for if he loses it).

So we’re given a scene with an Insurance Agent that we only see one time in a 92 page script. Yet, in this scene the Agent brings up this fact about Curtis’ job in a way that makes sense in the context. The result is that I’m willing to let this pass, especially since it didn’t show up until page 39.

The only other note I made about exposition came on pages 53-54 with this:

Yeah, I don’t know my mother’s
symptoms. I was just 10. My
brother was 17. And, uh…I don’t
know. She just left me in the car
in the parking lot at the grocery
store one day. And she didn’t come
back. And then they found her a
week later eatin’ trash out of a
dumpster in northern Kentucky.

My dad had to put her in the state
hospital in Columbus. And she’s
been in assisted living ever since.
Yep. My dad raised me. He died
last April.

That is pretty virulent exposition, but I’ll also let this pass because I’m sure we all GUESSED these facts after we read page 31:

He pulls out a thick hard cover book. The title reads,
“Understanding Mental Illness.”

And this from page 36:

You urinated in your bed?

Yeah. Couple days before that I
had a dream that my dog attacked me
and it took all day for the pain in
my arm to go away.
Doctor Shannan leans his back against the table and thinks
about this.

You been to see your mother lately?

OTHER THAN those two instances, I made NO notes about exposition.

For me, the single greatest success of this script is the way the author lets his audience fill in the details of his character’s lives. This will come up again in question four when we look at some of the techniques the author imbues his structure with to amplify the tension of his plot points; for now, we will demonstrate the script’s expositional worth with a single example:

We first meet Cutis’ brother Kyle on the bottom of page 68:

Curtis smiles to himself. He turns to find KYLE(42) standing
at the edge of the hole. His hands are tucked into the back
of his jeans and he’s sizing up the work.

We don’t FIND OUT he is Curtis’ brother until these lines in the middle of page 70:

You been to see Mom?

Yeah. A few days ago.

The author allows the writing to tell us about their relationship. Who else, but brothers would have an exchange like this:

Uh, huh…Hey, look. You wanna come
by and have dinner sometime, Kyle.
That’s fine. We’ll have a beer and
talk about the old days, but you
got somethin’ to say just say it.

You can stop that shit right now.
I’ll come over there and remind you
what it feels like to get your ass

Not only do we suspect these guys are brothers long before we’re told they are. We even know which one is older.

The lack of exposition is an unqualified success of this script.

Part B) I’ll start out by noting that the scene I just referenced to illustrate the expositional success (between Curtis and Kyle—pages 68-72) would also work well as a proof of the script’s subtextual merit.

There is a lot of excellent, beneath the surface, information punctuating that discussion of Curtis’ well-being. In other words, it would be clear (even if that were the first scene in the script) that Kyle and Curtis are brothers AND that Kyle is the older brother. Clearly, this script has something up its sleeve, but let’s parse one more example just to be sure. From pages 15-16:

Curtis stares at Samantha, but she’s still giving him the
cold shoulder. Finally, while holding up a card, she looks
at him. He signs, “I’m sorry”. A fist moving in a circular
motion at his chest.

You’re not sorry.

I am sorry.

She looks to Hannah and signs, “swim”.

Well, you stink. You smell really

He smiles.

I think I smell good.

She smiles, begrudgingly, and then signs to Hannah, “Dad” and
“stink”. Curtis turns to some ladies behind him.

Do I smell good?

Samantha laughs and tries to cover his mouth with her hand.

See. Maybe I should marry her

They continue to laugh.


I chose to highlight this passage because the most important reveal in the script would be completely flat if the audience does not believe Samantha ACTUALLY loves Curtis. Today’s author realizes this fact about his script and instead of having Samantha JUST TELL Curtis she loves him, he puts the tell into the subtext.

As we’ve noted several times on this blog, real people don’t fight about the things that are actually bothering them. They fight around the things that are actually bothering them. Samantha is justifiably upset that Curtis has blown off the importance of this meeting to his family by showing up in all the mud and grime his well-drilling work clothes can carry.

Samantha is angry about the fact that Curtis is not taking the school situation seriously but, Samantha’s dialogue is about Curtis clothes not his insensitivity.

I also loved how the author clues Curtis in to the fact that he’s off the hook by having Samantha make a sign language joke with their daughter, Hannah. Samantha has made the point that Curtis has to make more of an effort to take these things seriously in the future. By following her cold shoulder up with light humor, she is letting Curtis know that the scope of the argument will not include any nuclear options.

Curtis, of course, eager to get himself off the hook, immediately joins in by continuing the joke with “the ladies behind him”. Message delivered, accepted, and tension diffused, all in 10 lines or less.

Everything about this scene insinuates the love which flows back and forth between Samantha and Curtis. Look at how easily she dismisses Curtis’ moderate transgression. We know she loves him simply because she does not hold him ransom to his mistake.

Part C) There were lots of nice individuation touches sprinkled throughout the dialogue. The first we’ll look at is from page 20:

Okay. I got my phone if you need
anything. Don’t forget Sunday
lunch is here tomorrow.

Sixteen words can’t tell us anything UNIQUE about a character, can it? I’ll argue that it can. These sixteen words are telling us that:

1. Samantha is glue of this family. [I think every family unit has a “gluer”. Before Palm Pilot’s and Siri, THIS PERSON was how people got where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. [This person organizes the world for you.]
2. She’s also the “everyday caretaker” in this family. She’s the family member who always has her phone in case YOU need her. [This person makes the world less rough for you.]

Nearly all of Samantha’s dialogue reflects these two essential traits about her character. Today’s author will be on great footing in this part of the question if we continue to find instances of these traits late in the script. Lets look at one more example from page 87 to see if this is the case:

I love you, but if I open the door,
then nothin’s gonna change. You’ll
see that everything’s fine, but
nothing will change. Please. This
is what it means to stay with us.
This is something you have to do.

Even when faced with the probable schizophrenia of her most cherished loved one, Samantha reacts as Samantha. She organizes and sands Curtis’ world here at the end because that’s who she has shown herself to be all along.

My one complaint about the characters in this script is that there are too many that have a single scene and then are never heard from again.

One-off characters are usually a sign of LOTS of exposition. The character tells us some crucial thing we need to know in that moment and then dies or is forgotten. Take Shelter is no exception to this general rule. It’s just that THE REST of the script was so well done in terms of exposition, I did not feel it was right to take off points for this defect in that part of the question. I feel no such compunction now.

[Well, here I am almost 2000 words into my review of Take Shelter and I’ve only managed to get us to the end of question one. I’m sure this says a whole lot more about me than it does about the script. Basically, it would seem, I have trouble getting to the point, or maybe I just like to read my own words. Whatever criticism of my critiquing style you choose, you will find [in me] an avid endorser. [I also think my syntax can be tortured, but that’s a whole different complaint. See, I’m doing it now. I’m pretty sure that I could write more words about a screenplay than there are words in a screenplay. I will try harder to get to the point quicker. I am reluctant to believe in my success. As Vonnegut might say, so it goes…]

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out?

There are really only two attention grabbing events in the first 10 pages. On page 1 we have:

He rubs the water through his thumb and fingers. It’s an
amber color, viscous, like fresh motor oil.

Imagery which is picked up again (and intensified) on page 10 with this:

Curtis collects Hannah off the playscape and turns back to
the approaching STORM CELL. He holds up his hand and studies
the falling rain. It’s the thick, amber colored liquid.

With Hannah in his arms, Curtis watches, awestruck, as wispy
tentacles drip to the ground forming a collection of THREE
TORNADOS out in the field.

Behind them, Red’s teeth fray the rope at his collar. He
thrashes his head, the rope SNAPS, and the dog flies toward
Curtis and Hannah.

Curtis turns to see Red charging them. He barely has time to
set Hannah down before Red catches him by the forearm.
They crash to the ground, tangled together. Rain coming down
hard now.

Curtis yells and waves Hannah back. Red, snapping, buries
his teeth into the muscles in Curtis’ arm. Blood streams
from the wound.

These events are intriguing. I’ve never really seen it rain motor oil before, I guess. So, in terms of points, I’d say the “magic” in the first ten earned about half my interest. But, no fire was ever started in a reader’s mind with magical sparks alone; there has to also be present the flint strikes of a well told story. In that regard, these first ten were hit or miss for me.

From page 8

You got a good life Curtis.

Curtis shrugs.

I’m serious. I think that’s the
best compliment you can give a man,
take a look at his life and say,
that’s good. That guy’s doin’
somethin’ right.

Which is immediately preceded by this exchange:

Nat and me been lookin’ into a
threesome. We’ve been chattin’ with
a girl online from Canton. Yeah.
Big ‘ol girl.

What’s big?

She’s about two fifty, two seventy
five. She can’t be no taller than
5 foot.

Dewart starts laughing, which makes Curtis laugh.

Shit man.
The laughing subsides.

I don’t see me and Sam gettin’ into
somethin’ like that.

No. I don’t guess you would.

And then immediately followed up by this:

Well. It ain’t always so easy.

Hell I know that.

Dewart sees something out his window.

Ah shit. I gotta go…Manana.

Good night.

It’s pretty clear to me, that the author wants this idea about Curtis having a good life to be strongly related to this script’s theme. I applaud that part of the effort. Still, there is an artificial feel to the way the subject comes up.

“My wife and I are thinking of having a ménage, but you have a great life, my friend?”

That’s not natural at all. Of course, even this failing effort is better than the way this scene gets summed up:

Dewart sees something out his window.

Ah shit. I gotta go…Manana.

You know I love to talk about theme, I think every GOOD script BEGINS with a theme, and I think you should be able to fit the expression of that theme on an average sized bumpersticker. What I don’t think is that you should go to unnatural lengths to beat us over the head with it in the first 5-7 pages.

On the other side of this coin, I thought this scene, from pages 4-5, was excellent:

Samantha jumps up from her sewing to see outside. Hannah,
with her back to the house, bangs a 2 X 4 with a rusted nail
in the end into the ground. Samantha is out the door.

Samantha walks briskly, talking to the other children.

You guys okay?


Samantha takes a wide line around Hannah, who continues
banging the two-by-four into the ground. As soon as the
child sees her mother, she stops.

Samantha crouches in front of Hannah, gently taking the board
away from her. Samantha signs with her hand and speaks at
the same time.

No. Don’t touch.

Hannah tilts her head, looking off to the side. Samantha
touches her chin bringing her eyes back around.

(signing and speaking)
You understand?

Hannah nods once, “yes”.

Oksy. Come here.

Samantha stands and takes the board to a trash pile in the
back corner of the yard. A STORM SHELTER is buried in the
ground just behind the pile. It’s a grass covered mound with
two rusted metal doors angled toward the sky.

I thought this scene was very tender. The way Samantha attends to her child is quite beautiful. Her actions ABOUND with her essential character traits.

As we discussed in the last question, Samantha ORGANIZES and SANDS the rough edges from the worlds of those she loves. I got this about her, immediately.

In the end, this was a real seesaw battle for me. I loved the glimpse into Samantha’s psychology. Curtis read as (appropriately I think in hindsight) oddly detached. Hannah’s condition and the oil/rain were also pretty good.

Overall, I was leaning toward full investment.

3. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself?

Part A) So, I don’t want to let the air out of question four’s discussion of the ending, but I will at least hint that the ending is unique. I’ll make you wait to see if I liked that uniqueness or not. I also appreciated the way the story was designed to appeal to the people who have the money to produce movies. Other than a few special effects, this is a low-key low-budget affair—with well written characters that actors would want to play.

Part B) Nothing special, workman-like delivery from the actual sentences in the script. I do like the characterization, though. Especially Samantha, she was, for me at any rate, a raging success.

4. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story?

Part A) So, now we can begin to talk about that ending. I fear we will talk about nothing else until we hit the personal fade out for this review.

I did not like it.

Now, let me back up and be more precise. I did not like it on principle. As a reviewer, they are certain concepts, relating to Story in General, which I consider to be inviolable. The very first of these is:

Ambiguous endings are always worse than unambiguous endings.

This movie is a perfect example of why I think this. If you don’t tell the audience what the trip they just took was supposed to mean, than that trip can mean anything. [Logic has a similar situation except logicians say that the times when something can mean anything are always the result of having argued to a contradiction.]

So, in logic, anything follows from a contradiction. In movies, anything follows from an ambiguous ending. What does this mean, for Take Shelter, specifically? It means, that if I wanted to [and I choose this example because I actually did read an article which makes this argument] I could write a nice paper on why Take Shelter’s ending makes a statement about our current political and economic climate. This was an interesting article and the person who wrote it was very smart and even a little convincing. The problem, however, is that in no possible world is the ending of Take Shelter trying to make a statement about the current political and economic climate. That argument is very smart and very likely nonsense.

The writer of that article gets away with making those claims, though, because Take Shelter has an ambiguous ending. Was it a dream? Was it real? Was it both? The author doesn’t say. And one and only one thing is necessarily true about critics:

Give them a girl with a crooked smile and they are fundamentally programmed to see the Mona Lisa.

I liked the way the author manipulated his reveals to get to his ambiguous ending A LOT, I just didn’t like where the ambiguity left the meaning of the story.

Part B) The engine of this story is a universal. I loved it, I always love it, if you want to get a script by Joel make this engine THE ENGINE of your script too:

Can I trust my senses are telling me the truth ABOUT MYSELF?

Man, do I love that. It is so self-referential to one’s own self.

The reason I always love this engine is because it usually leads somewhere interesting. I suspect it will continue to do so until some industrious person solves our skeptical dilemma once and for all .

The fact is that even when we think we know for sure we can trust ourselves to give us reliable information about ourselves, we ALSO have to admit that ASKING the question constitutes a reason to doubt the certainty.

Of course, expressing all this by way of a character with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia is a bit of an OBVIOUS choice. Still, I did love it.

Part C) Does the script have a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story.

For me, the theme is:

Beliefs are warranted whenever they are true.

Yes, that’s me poking a little tautologous fun at the theme of today’s script. This is what happens when you write me something that doesn’t end.

Of course, the movie has other things going on it at as well. Here, Samantha provides a partial rescue. If this were her movie, the theme would be:

Love is not love which alters when it alterations finds.

I would give this more points, if this were Samantha’s movie.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script.

If we were judging just by Curtis, this would be a complete zero for me. I just can’t get anything useful out of the idea that I should believe in stuff when stuff is true. Tautologous might be too kind a word Curtis’ theme may be plainly vacuous.

Thank goodness (again) for Samantha. She saved every aspect of this script for me. The scene with her, Hannah, and Curtis after the tornado and in the shelter is very good stuff. Without a doubt, Samantha is the triumph of this script.


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