The Storm Around Us

Take Shelter (2011)

illustration by Tom Ralston

Before I studied creative writing, I worked in a movie theater. I cleaned up people’s popcorn messes and tore tickets down to their stubs. My first attempt at college had failed—I’d gone to Western Oregon University to get a degree in education. I wanted to be an English teacher for the Deaf. I loved stories but I didn’t see myself, a deaf person, in them. I wanted to change that. Then I decided to switch to a major in English, to get more out of the subject I would one day teach. And then I went to nothing at all; from college student to minimum-wage worker in a movie theater.

The more I worked at the movie theater, the more I saw that I worked for a company that didn’t care about accessibility. Independent films often came without closed captions. The times I watched movies and used captioning machines (either glasses or a mirrored visor), my neck ached from the careful angles I sustained to see the captions and the film without missing vital information.

Even worse, I was called down to the ticket counter to tell deaf customers that this film or that film didn’t have captions. The look of resignation on their faces had my fist rubbing circles upon my chest again and again, giving the deaf person apologies the theater manager never would.

I understand that resignation all too well, the way it feels like the hollowed-out shell of anger. It’s a feeling you get used to when you see, again and again, that the world around you isn’t conspiring against you—for the most part, the world just doesn’t care.

I was attracted to movies because I could see on-screen the same resignation I felt. Film directors use imagery as their palette, their art, and I could see Liv Ullmann’s or Elizabeth Olsen’s faces fill with that same exhausted anger, that same jittery anxiety, that I’ve felt as a severely deaf person in a hearing society. I find a kind of validation when I watch those moments. We feel this, too, the films seem to say. We understand what you’re feeling, and we feel it, too.

I see that same resignation and anxiety most strongly on the screen when I watch Jeff Nichols’ 2011 film Take Shelter. It’s easy to categorize Take Shelter as yet another psychological thriller or, perhaps, another character study of a person pushed to the brink in our late-capitalist hellscape. But Take Shelter goes beyond those frameworks. It doesn’t just comment on the uneasy state that Michael Shannon’s Curtis LaForche finds himself in, but it shows us how he gets to his low point and why. Instead of merely putting disabled characters on-screen, Take Shelter examines how they are treated in American society, and allows us to see how ableism is woven into that social fabric, from systemic failings to personal interactions.

This approach made me feel like I was watching my life on the screen.

Take Shelter implicates us all in the oppressive framework of ableism. At the beginning of the film, Curtis is our everyman, trying to make ends meet and give his family a good life. As the film progresses, Curtis goes from a well-respected, well-liked construction worker to someone who might require inpatient care for what looks like a debilitating mental condition. The film suggests that things could have been different if people had known what to ask and how to listen, if people had known how to approach mental illness and disability with respect and understanding.

But not only is Curtis met with an oppressive, hostile attitude throughout Take Shelter, he pushes that same attitude on other people in the beginning, even as he struggles to make sense of what’s in his head versus what’s happening in the world. Curtis wants to fit in. He understands, as most people do, how fragile social status is and he works hard to preserve it until he can’t any longer. He saw his mother undergo that fate, after all, that fall from being a mother to being a schizophrenic in assisted living; he visits and asks her what caused her mental break. He tries to draw parallels between her life and his without telling her what he’s doing. “Did you ever have any dreams? Like, bad dreams?” he asks her. “No, nothing like that,” she answers.

“Are you OK?” she asks him, after answering his questions.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” 

Such is Curtis’ desire to integrate that he can’t even confide to someone who could understand, better than anyone, what he’s going through. But his growing anxiety and the mounting violence in his dreams is a threat to building the life he wants, and he fights by suppressing it and telling no one.

He makes the uncertain certain. He wants to find certainty in his life and in the ways he moves through the world because Curtis’ environment, a small town in rural Ohio, doesn’t deal in uncertainty. America, in general, doesn’t deal in uncertainty—and Nichols shows this need for hard certainty on a granular scale. If there is a question, it must be answered. If there is a problem, it must be solved. There’s not much space for anyone to fuck up. There’s not much space for anything.


The biggest hurdle at the beginning of Take Shelter for Curtis and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is Hannah (Tova Stewart), their deaf daughter. Curtis often speaks to Hannah before remembering to sign, and, after talking to Hannah one night, must ask Samantha how to sign “excited.” Deafness, to Curtis, is another uncertain thing, something he doesn’t know much about.

Cochlear implants are Curtis’ answer to Hannah’s deafness, the way to make the unknown known and the uncertain certain. Even as the ASL teacher urges Samantha to continue with sign language, Curtis and Samantha still push forward with the surgery.

At the outset of the film, I saw myself in Hannah. We’re introduced to her, a girl who signs with her parents but spends most of her time by herself, most notably smacking a board with nails against grass as other kids play nearby. I grew up, like Hannah, the only deaf kid in my family, and I spent large swaths of my childhood reading by myself in the library while my peers spent recess together outside.

I understood Hannah more than I understood Curtis, the lead character. Hannah has to connect to people who chatter with their mouths instead of signing. Hannah trying to connect with others who didn’t sign would mean she would be trying to understand spoken language and sound, something that never rests fully in a deaf person’s grasp. This is something I went through, as well.

There’s a moment in the film when Curtis says to Hannah, “You excited? We’re gonna get you some help.” The first time I watched that moment, I bristled. Who is the help really for? I thought. Is the cochlear implant help for Hannah, a deaf girl born into a world that doesn’t know what to do with her? Or is it help for Curtis and Samantha, a way for them to urge Hannah into a world where she may or may not adapt?

I don’t wear a cochlear implant. I wear hearing aids. Cochlear implants have been recommended to me as I’ve grown up, from strangers and friends alike, couched in the same language that Curtis uses in the film. “It can help,” people say.

Cochlear implants certainly can help. They’re an accessibility device. They don’t cancel out the work that I would have to do to learn how to receive sound, translate it into my brain until it renders familiarly, and do the work of lipreading. Cochlear implants can help, but they aren’t a cure for deafness. I would remain a deaf person in a hearing world.

Deaf folks exist outside of the traditional routes of communication, the avenues that allow for social advancement. But we still must adapt to those routes. We must facilitate communication when we don’t have the means to understand the nuance underneath. No surgery or assistive device can bring a deaf person fully into the mainstream, to the point where their disability doesn’t exist.

As the film progresses, we don’t see much more of Hannah, outside of a few key scenes and the part she plays in signaling the film’s ending. But we do see Curtis, we see his internal turmoil as his dreams and anxiety wrack him. He goes to his doctor, then a counselor, and then, finally, his mother in assisted living. Rather than receiving an easy answer, he gets their own points of view.

“They say it might be a brief psychotic disorder,” Curtis tells the counselor. “Whatever it is, I need to know what to do or what to get on to get this thing under control.”

“Look, I’m a counselor,” is her response. “Certified, but I’m not a psychiatrist. I can’t prescribe anything to you. I can talk to you. I can recommend where to send you, but that’s it.”

There may be help, but it twists away from Curtis. As the dreams persist and manifest into hallucinations, Curtis runs into roadblocks. The doctor recommends both sleeping pills and a psychiatrist. The sleeping pills work until they don’t. Curtis sidesteps the psychiatrist and opens up to a counselor and then that bond is severed when the aforementioned counselor is transferred.

Outside of that, his dread and society’s demands bear down on him. Samantha demands to know, “What’s wrong with you?” Curtis’ boss runs his workplace like a well-oiled machine—with little regard for Curtis or any other employee. Curtis explores his options to get away from the storm inside his head until those options are taken away from him.

The storm that Curtis dreams about, and hallucinates about, is specific to him, to his anxiety and dread. As Curtis fears the world turning on him, the storm goes from an outside threat, with thick dark rain coming down in sheets, to a barrier that drives a wedge between Curtis and his loved ones—by using the loved ones themselves as threats. To this end, one of the most chilling dream sequences sees Samantha wet from the storm. She gazes behind her at a knife on the kitchen counter and we pick up on the threat of violence. The dynamic has changed. Samantha becomes someone that can be influenced to turn against Curtis by outside forces. The film states that even Curtis’ loved ones are unable to fully understand him. Even as Curtis is supported by Samantha, she cannot see what goes on inside his head. The storm is Curtis’ burden to carry.

This is, in and of itself, the frustration of disability in an ableist society. You must not expect connection, because no one else can possibly understand what it’s like inside your body, inside your mind. You must not expect relief or understanding. In every society, especially a capitalist society, you are expected to work, to adapt, to fit in with the norms. If you cannot adapt, you must make do with what’s left. If you cannot make do, there are few options for you. You are on your own.

Samantha’s support only goes so far: she plans to use the finances to extend the insurance policy and get a psychiatrist for Curtis. She does what our institutions cannot do for Curtis. She also asks Curtis to go to a community picnic and brushes aside his concerns. “I need to do something normal,” she insists.

Samantha’s need is beyond Curtis’ grasp. When he is confronted by his co-worker, Dewart (Shea Wigham), at the community picnic, he breaks down and yells about the storm in his head. The storm lives inside of him. He can’t think of anything else: the storm constantly tugs at him, creating emotions inside him that build and build until, finally, Curtis explodes. 

Curtis’ breakdown at the picnic is heartbreaking because it emphasizes that normal—Samantha’s expectation—is not an option anymore. In an ableist society, Curtis can’t be normal. Curtis can’t uphold the social status he once had. Connections can’t happen under the pressure of societal expectations to put on a brave face. Curtis can’t pass as mentally stable, just as Hannah can’t connect with hearing people who don’t use sign language with her. 

Even though the root causes of disconnection and anxiety are different, I saw myself in both Hannah and Curtis by the film’s end. Hannah cannot connect with the people around her, so she must receive an implant. Curtis struggles with his own anxiety about the world around him and can’t find any certainty. The only thing left for Curtis is to retreat and double down on a possible escape, the storm shelter, which he does. Both Hannah and Curtis struggle to find connection in the wake of feeling alienated from society, so they retreat into themselves and what they know.


But even as there is a shelter, we must venture back out into the world. We must forge what connections we can with other people, so we’re not alone.

For most of the film, we see Curtis shrunken in on himself and secretive. It takes a while for him to open up, to share the anxiety and dread inside himself. He only makes his fears known when Samantha sees him suffer a seizure and asks him directly, “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been having those dreams,” Curtis responds. “It’s hard to explain because it’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling.”

This scene is pivotal—Curtis admits he might be disabled, that he might suffer from a mental condition. Instead of being limited to medical settings, to the doctor’s and counselor’s offices, disability is being talked about in the home. It is still a medical problem, but it also is acknowledged as a fact of life. Curtis admits he’s not well to Samantha, and, to some extent, to himself.

“You know what I come from,” Curtis tells Samantha. “I promised myself I would never leave. And I am doing everything that I can to make that true.”

Not only does Curtis open up about the anxiety brewing inside him, manifesting in his dreams and beyond them, he opens up about his fear of where his anxiety would lead him. He doesn’t want history to repeat itself. He wants to keep living his life, to keep on being a worker and a father. He wants to be present in ways his mother never was.

What also makes this confession scene so pivotal is the fact that Samantha listens. This is the moment when Curtis becomes more than the beaten, anxious self that he’s been hiding from the world. He opens up, and Samantha takes it in.

To listen to disabled people is to give people a space that the healthcare system doles out too infrequently. In a time where healthcare is less and less of an option because of exorbitant costs, disabled folks have to rely on alternate support systems. Curtis and Samantha’s dynamic becomes one such alternate support system, borne only because the healthcare Curtis needs is out of his reach.

While Samantha and Curtis work together to protect his welfare, Curtis bonds with Hannah. While Samantha still pushes for Hannah’s surgery, Curtis signs more. He spends more time with Hannah, a noticeable shift from the person who struggled to engage with her before. 

At the end of Take Shelter, there is a sense of possibility. Before the truth descends, Curtis and Samantha reckon with the way their path has diverted from societal norms. There is a new way for life to be lived, with Curtis in inpatient care, and they will adapt to it. Medicine will be administered. Family will continue to be family. Samantha cooks a meal, trying to sustain the family she knows and loves. Curtis is on the beach, playing with Hannah, when the truth comes to shore.

In order to connect with someone, you must first open yourself up and meet them on their level. In the face of loneliness, Curtis opens up to Samantha and then tries to connect with Hannah. We see Curtis connect more with Hannah and recognize her deafness more and more as he also adapts to his own mental illness. They are living similar lives now. For both of them, disability is not something to be cured. It is something to live with and work with, in a society that often doesn’t know how to live with or alongside disability. Rather than accommodating disabled people, society often rejects them instead of reaching out to them.

This is the case, often, for a disabled person in our modern society. This is the case for me.

I’ve lived as a deaf person, a disabled person, all my life. People who are abled don’t understand how profoundly disability can affect a person, particularly a person who lives in a society thriving on capitalism. To be disabled means you are constantly denied the things that make up your agency and humanity. You are denied bigger things: your medication, your assistive aids, your caretaker. More often, you are denied your ability to stand up for yourself and reach out. You are denied the ability to make connections.

Sometimes, it is hard to not wonder if it’s worth being in an environment that seems to not care about you. Some days you get an answer.

Ableism isn’t always large-scale systemic oppressions. Sometimes it’s sitting alone at a picnic table with your family, dread bubbling in your chest, or sitting on your family’s lawn, thumping a board with nails on the grass. To face ableism is to be on the outside looking in, hoping to find a way to bear down if abled people turn against you.

Ableism is a different kind of storm than the kind Curtis has nightmares about; it is less of a looming, impending presence, but it is no less destructive in how it upends lives. This kind of storm always catches up with us. This storm always reminds us of the place disabled people occupy when they are surrounded by abled people. The only thing we can do is try our best to survive, against the odds.

Take Shelter seems to understand this societal nuance instinctively. Ableism is not a word that’s said in the film, but it’s a force that bears down on Curtis and Hannah. Hannah grows up separate from the world, as a deaf person, both physically and mentally. Her place in the world is a lonely one, simply because she is unable to adapt to it. Curtis understands, more and more, that his status is already crumbling as he becomes more and more uncertain of society’s inevitable collapse.

While Hannah is always alone, Curtis becomes alone as Take Shelter plays out, beleaguered by an attitude and a hostility that follows both him and Hannah. Society presses forward and Curtis, with his anxiety, gets left behind. Hannah, with her deafness, gets left behind too. Curtis’ response to this alienation is to search for shelter. Then he tries to find a way to connect, and then he sees his anxiety come to life at the end.

So does Hannah. At the end, she cocks her head, her hands swirling.

“Storm,” she signs. 

At the end, she sees the storm first, and she is the first to recognize, with her face buried in Curtis’ shoulder, the destruction it holds.