Monday 26 December 2011

Take Shelter: Inheritance, Surveillance and Being Normal

by Katie Featherstone, School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies, Cardiff University

Inheritance (of land, fortune, title) and inheritance of madness is a common plot device and this film gives a contemporary take on this story. The key themes I want to discuss are inheritance and surveillance, but also the competing versions of being ‘normal’ presented and challenged throughout the film.

Inheritance and Surveillance

The risk of inheritance of major mental illness and the silent surveillance of Curtis by the couples friends, their family and their wider community and importantly by Curtis himself, runs through the film. I am a sociologist of medicine, and I am particularly interested in how people make sense of genetic illness and risk. My detailed ethnographic study Risky Relations: Family and kinship in the era of new genetics (2006) examines the ways in which individuals and families respond to having a genetic risk, and the ways in which they disclose this risk of disease to other family members. Genetic conditions lead to alertness and monitoring in various ways and in this monograph we identify processes of ‘mutual surveillance’ among family members:

• Older family members observe the next generation in order to try to detect early signs of the condition ‘coming out’ in them.
• Similarly, if they are aware of the familial nature of the condition, members of the younger generation survey their older relatives, in order to try to assess their own possible fate.

Importantly, they all search for patterns to assess how the condition affects their own particular family, the onset and early signs of the condition and how it manifests and progresses within their family.

From the aftermath of his first dream Curtis surveys himself for the signs of the onset of the mental illness that affected his mother at a similar age (30’s). Every time his wife, closest friend and brother ask ‘Are you OK?’ he gives no indication of his underlying anxiety, but tries to cope and manage on his own, seeing his GP and counselor in secret. In response, his wife, their friends and community silently watch him. Even his GP when he discloses what to him is possibly his most embarrassing symptom (bed wetting), just asks ‘have you seen your mother recently?’ No one mentions the possible diagnosis that is clearly in all their minds (onset of mental illness) and they all watch and worry in silence.

It is also typical that family members worry about onset at a similar age- he has reached the same age as his mother developed her mental illness. Beliefs about who is ‘at risk’ within the family often follow social rather than biological patterns of transmission. The assessments of clinical professionals are often assimilated into the broader systems of belief and practice that form the context of ideas about kinship and inheritance. In one of the final scenes, the psychiatrist tells Curtis he needs to ‘commit to treatment’ and to enter a treatment facility, this mirrors both the onset of his mothers condition, but also her fate: following onset and diagnosis she was hospitalised and became institutionalised for the rest of her life. For me, this seems to tap into Curtis’s deepest fears.

We do not need genetic science to provide us with a general sense of biological relatedness or to tell us that risk of disease can be transmitted through families (for example, Haemophilia and the royal families of Europe) or that there are strong cultural beliefs that traits such as talents and aspects of personality are inherited. In the film, these more general beliefs about inheritance are played out during the play date, where the women discuss the fate of the tiny baby with them: he is destined to be just like his father- drinking beer and going to bars every night. My own work examines Mendelian genetic conditions, however, work has yet to be done to examine the ways in which individuals and families make sense of more complex multi-factoral conditions such as the major mental illness, that have more complex patterns of familial risk.

The wonderful ambiguity throughout this film means that we always question whether Curtis is experiencing the onset of mental illness or is it something else? Is he a prophet? or is he expressing a deep anxiety about being abandoned? We find out that his father (who brought him up) has recently died and his mother abandoned him in a car when he was a child. The shelter may be a way of shoring up his world, he repeatedly states throughout the film that he won’t leave his wife or daughter.

Being Normal

Reality is contested through the film. The first scene is a very Norman Rockwell scene of Curtis standing in his yard with the picket fence and pick-up truck. As his friend says, he has the ‘perfect life’ in the context of this blue collar Mid-Western world. It is ‘normal’ but only one version of it. But it is also an apple pie fantasy of a small town world. However, as he starts to get ill, he is seen as stepping out of line and the clear message from the community is that he does not fit in.

In return, he also imposes a world on them. This is the God fearing bible belt of America and we see this in his father-in-law’s damning statement that Curits does not attend church. But Curtis in turn, also imposes another world on them; he becomes a prophet warning them of Armageddon.

For me, the most powerful scene is the oyster bake, which encapsulates so many of the key themes. The family are trying to function as normal, as the wife puts it she wants them to have a normal family night out. But as they sit down to enjoy the meal, all the eyes of the community are on them - silent surveillance of him – and importantly they sit apart. His best friend confronts him and makes it clear he no longer belongs there. They fight and no one intervenes and as he is covered in food the community keeps silent whilst he accuses them of believing he is mentally ill. Then the tone changes dramatically - his speech turns into a sermon warning of Armageddon and of fire and brimstone, dispensed from the pulpit. The community who are still silently watching him from their seats become more akin to a scared flock- his language now holds a resonance for this God fearing community and they look scared. Curtis turns to his wife who looks at him not in fear, but in horror at what is happening to them. The three of them (Curtis, his wife and daughter) hold each other and leave this silent ever-watching audience and their isolation from the community becomes very clear.

I love the ambiguous ending. In the final scene they are having the holiday at the beach house that the wife has saved for and fantasized about throughout the film. Yet even here the family are alone and isolated: the house looks the same, the routines are the same: she cooks in a similar kitchen and he plays with their daughter on the beach instead of the backyard. No one else can be seen. For the first time others see the storm coming- the daughter (who sees it first) and his wife. Is he a prophet, a modern Noah who’s vision saves his family, is this another dream or has his psychosis spread to Folie a deux for this family now isolated, shunned and set adrift by their community.


Featherstone K, Atkinson P, Bharadwaj A, Clarke AJ. (2006) Risky Relations: Family and kinship in the era of new genetics. Oxford: Berg.


  1. A difficult film to watch for the most part, but very thought provoking at the same time. It's very easy to read far more into the meaning of films than the director ever intended, so I'm sure my own interpretation will be contentious.

    I presume that the storm is meant as a metaphor for schizophrenia? He dreams of being hit by a terrible uncontrollable force and believes it to be fast approaching - perhaps not surprising in a man now in his 30s whose mother became schizophrenic at a similar age (I believe it is quite common for people with mental illnesses to use weather-like analogies to explain their experience - sunshine/thunder/lightning/storms). What is less clear is whether he is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia or if the nightmares merely reflect his fear that he will become schizophrenic. I had a slight concern in the scene with the Dr, who presented with a patient with mental health concerns doesn't really question him on any current stresses or anxieties in his life relating to work or private life (which you expect any Dr to do in this day and age) but merely thinks of Curtis' mother and a possible genetic inheritance. He advises Curtis not to drink or smoke and although he does mention treatment there is no indication of what that will mean other than medication. This preoccupation with a simplistic/genetic approach to mental illness in the film made me a little uneasy (as I pointed out in the after film discussion), though whether that is a reflection on the beliefs of the director or simply his characters we can't say. That said the optimistic conclusion showing Curtis away from the community (freed somehow?) perhaps tells us the director regards their straightforward values as stifling to someone with Curtis' problems. The need for him to get away from where he lives in order to deal with his problems is suggested again and again.

    Some people at the screening felt that the scene in the shelter with Curtis' wife persuading him to unlock the door was unrealistic. Nonetheless it seemed an important scene to me as what she was doing was testing him. Did he have the courage to face the world around him and deal with his problems or not. Perhaps if the answer was no his wife and child would have abandoned him but as it is he emerges from the shelter somewhat triumphantly allowing the film to conclude on an emotional high. What is nice is that this is not overdone and the subsequent scene of him submitting for treatment tells us this is the beginning of something not the end.

    I do not feel so ambiguously about the ending. The idea of him as a prophet of doom feels very misplaced to me in a film that tries to take mental illness so seriously. Likewise it would seem rather odd if the ending was 'real' the family would all react quite so calmly! (As I remember it anyway). I'm pretty sure this is another dream of his about the storm (as a metaphor for schizophrenia) but interestingly it is no longer in the form of a nightmare - he has his family onside, he's away from the rest of the community and there's a sense that they will cope with it. Perhaps a final optimistic note in a heavy film that suggests he may be responding to the treatment he's agreed to.

  2. Dear Gareth
    i really like your interpretation of the ending- with the storm a metaphor for schizophrenia or his fear of schizophrenia, Now he is sure of the support of his family and that they will survive, the storm - or future - is no longer terrifying.
    I thought one of the best things about this film was that it was full of love: they were a strong family and even when i thought the film was going to be even more harrowing and half expected a plot development where the gap between them becomes too big and his wife leaves him, but she doesn't. They were always united and the three were a strong and loving, despite the obstacles they encountered. I agree, the scene in the shelter was central - i found it terrifying, but it was really about trust and committing to trusting each other.

    I also agree that on one level the films focus on mental illness as genetic/inherited was a little simplistic, but it was focussing on the fear rather than any real risk of inheritance. Whist we had speakers discuss the difficulty of diagnosis, we could have had more on the difficulties of predicting risk of onset based on family history/genetics and the importance of environment - this is complex and uncertain territory for scientists, doctors and people like Curtis.

  3. It seems even someone like Oliver James accepts that schizophrenia has a strong genetic cause to it, so perhaps there is much to be said for genetic inheritance in this case. It is noticeable how he takes a very straightforward approach to his psychosis - doing a test and working out his score. Again that may just be a reflection on the sort of person Curtis is. I would have thought dealing with schizophrenia requires a broader approach.