I was in one of your dreams? The Jeff Nichols film TAKE SHELTER

I was in one of your dreams?
Can you deal with that?

  A brilliant recent exploration of the nature of dreams, and their paradoxical (non-) place in our living environment is Jeff Nichols’s film Take Shelter (2012). In it a married construction supervisor named Curtis has nightmarish dreams of storms, or of a fantastic catastrophe, and of people attacking him.  These dreams tell of lurking dangers in the present and of a coming ecological reckoning.  The dreamer reacts by two contradictory sets of actions: one, he prepares for the imminent danger, and tears himself away from those who threaten him in his dreams, digs a hole in the ground, builds up his storm shelter.  And, two, in the same responsive manner, consults a number of health professionals to confirm his possible paranoid schizophrenia and his greatest fear: to be put away, to be removed from his family, like his own mother was.  The brilliance of the film comes from that uncomfortable co-existence of mutually exclusive elements. 

 Curtis to his family doctor: A couple of days ago I had a dream that my dog attacked me and it took the whole day for the pain in my arm to go away.



A dream is then a psychosis, with all the absurdities, delusions and illusions of a psychosis, ” Freud writes, a brief, harmless, even useful psychosis, begun with the dreamer’s permission, and ended by an act of will.  “Der Traum ist also eine Psychose, mit allen Ungereimtheiten, Wahnbildungen, Sinnestäuschungen einer solchen.  Eine Psychose zwar von kurzer Dauer, harmlos, selbst mit einer nützlichen Funktion betraut, von der Zustimmung der Person eingeleitet, durch einen Willensakt von ihr beendet.” (Freud 1938)

In Take Shelter dreams are both useful to the dreamer and unhelpful – and they do not end. They are premonitions that warn him of something concrete – there is a storm coming! – but handicap him as he places himself in the hands of those he might even wish to protect but who will not let him act effectively: other people and mental health professionals.

Psychiatristto Curtis: I think you need to seriously commit to have treatment.

There is a caesura between Curtis’s dreams and the outside world: the dreams co-exist with the social world, but both remain contiguous.  Any crossing over brings life to a halt.

His employer, upon firing him: I’m sorry, Curtis, you did this to yourself.

The dreamer lives in a temporally anterior state where he has time to assess dangers. He holds the film there, even as the story’s time continues.  This film is unusual in that the character’s powerful handicap is not exploited for an emotional release.  Instead it keeps insisting that we, as viewers, should not follow our desire to find a solution to the story where it all comes together.  Listen up!  There is a storm coming!  The film remains with opposing ways of being, ours included, and is most courageous when these possibilities co-exist, not reconciled. 

Curtis’s dreams and hallucinations are not available to his environment because they exist at paradoxical different but simultaneous times.  These temporal differences – like Curtis’s dreams in his environment – do not allow for explanations, for speech. 

On dreaming but not speaking

 The film is thus driven by its various characters’ ways of being mute or deaf.  Curtis, for instance, does not recount his dreams to his wife who organizes their life. Not speaking creates a new hallucinatory environment, creates intrigue where, otherwise, the wife or the normal would resolve contradictions.  Up to the end, seeing, but not speaking, is all.

I left the cinema with this equation – even now not fully absorbed: not speaking is like the fright of living different times at the same time.

 One thing is clear to me: the film does not talk over its protagonist, as many flicks do.  Take Shelter is American in that it does not talk away the madman’s concerns or visions.


Take Shelter is a film that is in an uneasy dialogue – like its main character – an uneasy co-existence with a number of films: Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), Malick’s Badlands (1973), Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), the frogstorm in Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) and so on – visions of horror, storms, mayhem at the end of times.

It is uneasy because it needs to integrate very specific anxieties of today.  We all have understood, with Curtis, that something is not right.

Here is one reason why the talking cure remains so relevant: we suffer from the primacy of the image as sponsored by the corporate world while people’s real dreams are more than 99 % absent.  At worst we get the mise en scène of the people but not their actual productions.

Take Shelter takes a convincing step towards rectifying this state of affairs. For the Curtis of the film it remains impossible to sell his dreams.


Freud, “Die psychoanalytische Technik”, Abriss der Psychoanalyse (1938, published 1940)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.