The unique power of storytelling is found in its telescopic ability to focus on small, specific things, and in so doing to make comments on larger topics. Part of the fun of interpretation is in sussing out the contextual clues that point to a grand meaning. In Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe, there are the occasional mentions of AIDS or the provocative question, “Are you allergic to the twentieth century?” In Jeff Nichols’s 2011 film Take Shelter, there’s the shot of the gas pump. These films display laudable ambition in their efforts to understand their own social contexts, but their greatest strength is in their portrayal of individual people. They aren’t so much “social problem” films as they are interior horror stories, ferociously personal portraits of psyches on the verge of collapse. That the lead characters in these films, Carol White and Curtis LaForche, are also representative “types” is not my main concern, just the prism through which they can be seen clearly. Taking the films in tandem, of course, reveals a nice balance: woman and man, wife and husband, wilting homemaker and combative breadwinner.
Both of these films have a moment in which a medical doctor suggests to either Curtis or Carol that, in lieu of physical problems, he or she should consult a psychiatrist. It soon becomes clear in both cases that professional help isn’t going to produce a solution, so the troubled patients seek to diagnose themselves. The anxieties that create Curtis’s dreadful visions are straightforward enough. What if he can’t protect his hearing-impaired daughter from the dangers of the world? Evil people, rabid animals, the fury of nature itself all pose threats that he can’t always anticipate, let alone fend off. All he knows is that something terrible is coming, but it’s possible the storm will be confined to his own head, in which case the threat to his family will come from within. These darkling thoughts are expressed externally by way of lowering clouds, stabbing lightning, and muddy rain. As per the title, Curtis responds to these omens by making an extension to his storm shelter, a Y2K-esque bunker complete with canned food, circulating air, and a working toilet. In more ways than one, this attempt to protect his family is a folly.
Safe takes place in southern California rather than small-town Ohio. The weather being much less eventful there, Carol’s angst takes on subtler shades, although it’s still a matter of her environment. Her suburban lifestyle imprisons her in a world of chemicals emanating from hygiene products, furniture, and car exhaust. It’s a pollution of substances, but also of ideas. Radio stations, television shows, bulletin board flyers, the advice of close friends, every ambient piece of information seems to reinforce the idea that something is wrong. Like Curtis, Carol responds by raising her shields. Both films use portable oxygen tanks as shorthand for the isolation from malign outside influences that these characters try to maintain.
The differences in the situations of Carol and Curtis, and their different responses to them, have everything to do with gender roles as they’re perceived in America’s upper and working classes. Carol, the timid housewife, is expected to cooperate, or more to the point, is expected to be led by the men in authority over her. When Curtis asks a doctor for help, he has a simple objective: get medication to control his visions so that he can do what needs to be done, alone. In contrast to the self-reliant approach, Carol seeks out the people who can best explain what she’s feeling. She surrenders everything, joining a benevolent cult in the desert and submitting to a program that will, allegedly, cleanse her of toxic influences. Curtis doesn’t have the privilege of going even so far as Columbus to seek help, because he spends the first half of the movie trying to keep his problems secret. The diligent construction worker is expected to take charge of the environment himself and keep it safe while also earning the money that will pay the bills. For Carol and Curtis alike, these expectations become straitjackets — they fit, but they’re too rigid.
The perspectives of these films create an interesting comparison between the spouses of the main characters. The psychological problems of Carol and Curtis necessarily drive a wedge into their marriages. Greg White and Samantha LaForche spend their respective movies trying, mostly in vain, to understand what’s going on. Crucially, they are both decent, loving people. They don’t turn against their spouses, even when they get frustrated by all the insular behavior. But there’s still a difference in how these two supporting characters come off. Samantha, despite being more confrontational, is also more sympathetic than the aloof Greg. Take Shelter ends up being a story about the resilience of marriage, whereas Safe never entertains the notion that Carol’s husband can help her, or that he has an especially strong desire to try. He simply allows her to do what she thinks will help. This passivity ends up being less thoughtful than it initially appears. He’s content with his socially-approved role, earning a living. Curtis’s wife, on the other hand, doesn’t settle for the submissive role. She challenges her husband in an active attempt to cure him.
These stories are incredibly well-observed, throwing open the doors to vicariously sharing and empathizing with a particular life experience. The mesmerizing collaboration of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as the two leads in Take Shelter is only bested by the all-time great performance of Julianne Moore as Carol in Safe. The degree of difficulty in her work, expressing internal chaos without a hint of histrionics, is unbelievable. These performances invite the viewer to feel what it’s like to be broken, while still suggesting depths that can’t be fathomed. The filmmakers frame the actors in different ways. Haynes’s camera will often keep its distance from Carol, centering her in her oppressive environment. At two points, slow dolly zooms communicate first the unraveling of her world, then its closing in on her. Nichols gets into Curtis’s headspace more explicitly, with several shots of the back of his head and a palpable emphasis on the physical toll of his mental breakdown. The horror of these films is the fear of psychosomatic illness and the dread of being locked inside one’s own mind. In exploring these ideas, the films also propose a solution, looking into the unknowable and finding a way to understand it.