As commentators continue to analyse the reasons for Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US presidential election, this seems a particularly opportune moment to draw the reader’s attention to the work of Jeff Nichols, talented director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012) and now Midnight Special (2016) and Loving (2016). Though none of these films address the politics of the election in any explicit sense, many of them do provide us with a window into the lives of people who might be considered to represent some of Trump’s core demographics, in the small-towns of the South and Midwest. We will particularly focus on Take Shelter (2011), the story of an ordinary Ohio man whose apparent psychological disintegration in the face of encroaching fears may have much to tell us about a United States in which Donald Trump could win the presidency.
Jeff Nichols’ work spans a variety of themes and genres, from a Huckleberry Finn-inspired coming of age tale (Mud), to sci-fi (Midnight Special) and psychological drama (Take Shelter). What marks out Nichols’ films against the grain of recent Hollywood cinema, however, is the setting of almost all of them in the worlds of the white American working classes. Nichols’ favoured locations lie in the kind of small-town Midwest and South now rarely seen on screen, but exactly the sorts of places where Donald Trump’s right-wing populism resonated most strongly in this year’s election. Watching Nichols’ films, we gain a piece of understanding as to how Trump won. In their own ways, his characters are often grasping to connect with an idealised version of “the good life” which their lived experiences cannot match. It is in this gap between expectation and reality, a sense of the American dream denied, that Trump’s message found fertile ground.
Nichols’ films typically hint at a dangerous external world which impinges upon the fragile good lives of their leading characters- the warning sign of rising water levels at the beginning of Shotgun Stories, or the poisonous snakes and turbulent Mississippi river in Mud. It is Take Shelter, however, which is most concerned with the existential threats to these imperfect, unassuming but somehow idyllic worlds; and it is this film which allows us the greatest insight into the conditions which enabled a Trump victory in 2016.
Take Shelter depicts the family of Curtis LaForche, his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah. The LaForches are almost prototypical representatives of what has turned out to be Trump’s key constituency in the Rust Belt working classes, buffeted by the destabilising forces of globalisation and haunted by existential fears for their way of life- just as the Rust Belt itself stands as synecdoche for the US’ dead Fordist dream, broader relative decline and worry for its future place in the world.
A central question posed by both Take Shelter and in this year’s election campaign is the extent to which these fears are real or imagined. For Donald Trump, the threats, especially from othered “outsiders”- immigrants, Muslims, China- are tangible, and indeed have in many cases already been realised. According to Trump, “the American dream is dead”, subverted by malign external forces. Clinton, conversely, was the candidate of the status quo. A vote for her meant a vote for a positive reading of the present and an optimistic future, both built on a recent past where “America never stopped being great”.
On the face of it, reality for the LaForches seems closer to Clinton’s version. Curtis works hard at his job mining sand to provide for his family in the context of a close-knit community. Existence for the LaForches is presented as a modest embodiment of the American way of life which is relatively stable and comfortable, if not prosperous. But against this backdrop, Curtis begins to have strange dreams and visions, many of these taking the form of elemental forces- storms, tornados and clouds of bats- and sets about building a storm shelter which leads him to economic and, almost, familial ruin.
On one level, Take Shelter can be seen as the story of a man with a good life who is destroying it with his own hands due to rapidly developing schizophrenia. On another, allegorical level, the film suggests that Curtis’ apocalyptic visions are signs of a much more significant phenomenon- the transformation of the world into something which Americans can no longer control. By the end of the film we are left to decide whether Curtis has succumbed to his own private madness or whether this is a reasonable reaction to metaphorical storm clouds which really are gathering for the United States and its inhabitants.
The American Good Life and Its Discontents
Nichols invites us to build empathy with Curtis. Nevertheless, this is not an easy task. To understand Curtis, we have to understand his fears. And to do that, we have to take a closer look at Curtis’ life. Nichols shines when his characters are engaging in everyday activities. This is how we enter into their ordinary lives and gain a sense of how they view themselves and the worlds which they inhabit.
At the beginning of Take Shelter, Nichols takes time to emphasise the happiness and fulfilment of Curtis’ life. Dewart, Curtis’ co-worker and friend, underlines it: “You got a good life, Curtis. 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 doing something right.” Over the course of the film, this life that Dewart so admires is slowly pulled apart. Although he does not know why, Curtis does not feel content anymore.
On a societal level, there has long been an undercurrent of existential anxiety accompanying the US’ rise to global ascendency. This has repeatedly called into question the assumptions upon which the American conception of good life- what it means to being doing something right- is based. Following the War on Terror and the 2008 financial crisis, this is being challenged more than ever before. In one sense Trump’s victory can be read as a culmination and expression of these doubts and fears.
Nichols gives us hints about how such threats lie in the backdrop to Curtis’ life. For the most part, this is merely implied- Nichols never explicitly spells out the structuring relations between the overall global situation of the US and its impact on ordinary Americans. But we are shown enough to begin to piece together how the US of Curtis might connect to the country which elected Trump.
As religion plays an important role in American lives, Nichols makes references to American religiosity in his work. In this year’s Midnight Special he even gives a prime role to a religious cult in the story line. In Take Shelter he adapts a rather indirect approach. Nichols takes our attention to religion through one character in the film who comments on Curtis’ non-attendance at church.
When we start delving into the biblical associations of Curtis’ visions, Nichols stops us. Nichols wishes the viewers to locate the source of Curtis’ apparent madness in more terrestrial concerns. Religion is not stressed as an explanation for Curtis’ prophecies.
In order to grasp these fears, why they have recently come to the fore and how they are manifest in Nichols’ rendering of present-day Ohio, we must go back to the early days of the Cold War.
Fallout from The Atomic Bomb
Following World War II, nothing symbolised American power more than the atomic bomb. American triumph stemmed directly from this powerful expression of the achievements of enlightenment values, of science and progress. Combined with utopian visions of atomic-powered prosperity, it appeared that American scientists had conquered the world and nature itself.
This triumphalism, however, quickly brought with it a dark underbelly of social anxiety. The horrors of nuclear fallout were slowly dawning on the American populous, suggesting that the mastery of nature implied by the success of the Manhattan Project was a dangerous illusion. Instead, splitting the atom seemed to have unleashed new, more powerful elemental forces beyond human control.
Even more significant was the existence of an adversary, the USSR, which had ended the American monopoly on the atomic bomb in the year 1949, possessing the capability, for the first time in history, to essentially wipe out American society in a single attack. This notwithstanding, though the Soviet Union, may, in the mind of many Americans, have indeed been “evil” it was still a rational actor- the “other” in a world of binaries which was relatively simple to understand. Here was a superpower which competed with the US along the same lines- economic, technological, military- for world domination.
With the collapse of the communist bloc in the late 1980s, it appeared that American economic, technical and scientific prowess had defeated the rational and symmetrical threat of communism. This set the stage for “the end of history”, some rushed to believe, the ultimate triumph of the liberal values which found their expression and vindication in this victory and which at some level are reflected in the “good lives” of ordinary Americans such as Curtis.
The attacks of 11th September 2001 radically challenged this Western-centric, or to put it more correctly, American-centric optimism. The forces which now constrained the US’ ability to dominate could not be interpreted through the same enlightenment lens. The game-changing strategy of the new, apparently irrational enemy was an old one: the threat of terror.
Apocalypse Here and Now
Terror did not, for the most part, represent the same degree of existential threat as putative nuclear war with the USSR. However, the imagery of the Twin Towers collapsing was such that the localised attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre seemed equally apocalyptic- reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie. The timing, location and nature of possible attacks were now unpredictable. A wave of reports in the last decade detailed terror scares at a list of mundane targets: shopping malls, branches of Wal-Mart, swimming pools. This has given rise to the idea of a local apocalypse for Americans and most parts of the “free world”: destruction may happen in “your backyard” and without warning.
Meshing with this fear of terror attacks on American soil is the US experience of War in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter in some sense as a response to the former. The problem, as has often been noted, is the asymmetry observed in various dimensions of the “War on Terror”. The attacks of 2001 were asymmetrical in themselves- this was not a battle between militaries, but a means of attack which could bypass American military power. The deployment of this power in Iraq and Afghanistan, as expected, quickly gained “victory” for the US and its allies. This military might, however, built on American economic and technological supremacy, was ineffective in securing the occupation of the two invaded states, a fact lamented in Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid.
For all its historically unparalleled dominance along traditional metrics, the US could not prevent serious terrorist attacks on home soil, could not in response locate and remove the source of these and possible further attacks and could not co-opt or coerce Iraqis and Afghans to accept their occupation. Under the circumstances, the Reaganite appeal for the US as an unambiguous force for progress, democracy and freedom, coupled with the assumption that these values are universal and should be universalised, is difficult to sustain.
This has historically been such a powerful narrative, however, tied to earlier notions such as manifest destiny and apparently confirmed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the new, uncertain world was bound to produce dissonance, anxiety and mental anguish. The questioning of the assumptions that lay behind the wars is also now reflected in another area which, until recently, had been thought of as rational and predictable: economics.
Economic Collapse and Relative Decline
The Reagan-Clinton belle époque reversed a trend of decline which had come to a head in the debacle of Vietnam and the stagflation and unrest of the late 1960s and 70s. The restoration of profits based on a reorientation of the economy towards a more financialised, rationalised and liberalised model produced stagnating wages and growing inequality. By the 1990s, however, the US-inspired neoliberal model appeared to be outcompeting its rivals. Indeed, wrapped into the narrative of the end of history was the universalising of this model- free polities were inseparable from free markets.
By the time of the 2008 Crash, financialisation had made the workings of the economy opaque to everyone outside a small technocratic elite. Economics had become a depoliticised realm of experts, the assumptions of neoliberal ideology so encrusted that there was little debate beyond the most effective means of implementing the policies which the philosophy implied. With the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it became evident that far from having achieved the end of economic history, the experts did not understand and could not control the forces at play in the market. Current talk of double-dip recessions and the impending eurozone crisis illustrate that, just like terrorist attacks, all the power of the US is no bulwark against events which cannot be predicted, isolated or stopped, and which may happen at any time and anywhere.
Coupled with this is a longer term story of global transformation and relative US decline. The neoliberal ideal of a convergence towards a ‘flat’ world made in an American, Enlightenment-based image is fundamentally challenged by the success of states and economic models which do not share these values. History has not ended but is being rewritten. From a world historical perspective, American and European dominance comprises only a brief epoch which is now entering its final stages. Previously prominent civilisations such as China and India are coming back to the fore. Simply put, “the American dream” provided, initially and most importantly by a thriving domestic manufacturing industry is coming to an end. There is little today to support the conception of the continuing stability of the good life of the American middle and working classes. That Take Shelter engages with these issues is evidenced by an examination of Curtis’ working life.
Curtis has a job mining sand for the construction industry. We do not have enough information to speculate on the socioculture, mileu groups and mileus Curtis and his parents belonged to. However, we clearly see that Curtis has a working class habitus. Against the background of the American tradition of successive generations working in the same industry, undermined by the rise of the Global South, we could speculate that the chances are high that Curtis’ father used to work in the manufacturing business and he and Curtis had to pursue a different career when the deindustrialisation process due to outsourcing shook the country. Secure blue-collar work could not be passed on down the family line anymore. As laid-off manufacturing labourers had to switch into lower-paying jobs, we could accordingly assume that Curtis has already experienced a great social transformation taking place in his lifetime. He has witnessed that the US has simply lost the privilege to be at the driver’s seat of the world economy and politics.
While economic globalisation has provided cheaper products to American customers, declining real wages have brought lower standards of living, partly obscured by rising levels of personal debt. Although analytical truth hardly covers the emotional truth of the people, in the case of Curtis, we witness the social consequences of this large scale transformation. Curtis may indeed be gradually descending into madness as the film progresses, a response to tectonic global shifts which shake the foundations of each one of supposed certainties that together embody the particular American conception of the good life. We as an audience are left to adjudicate as to whether true insanity lies with Curtis or with the society around him, where the transformation is largely ignored and where people continue as though little has changed.
Sanity and Insanity
The ambiguity around Curtis’ psychological situation dominates the movie. Although there are hints in the movie that Curtis’ lived experience cannot be understood independently from the external factors which surround him, the film flows in such a way that Curtis’ anxiety is isolated from the world he lives in. Accordingly, Take Shelter tends to lead viewers in a certain direction which supports the idea that Curtis suffers from a psychological condition that he has inherited from his mother.
Nichols neither reduces Curtis’ situation to a propensity for insanity nor frees him from psychiatric suspicion. He successfully forces the viewers to shift from one position to another. Close to the final scenes, Nichols reaches the peak of his game by first showing how Curtis manages successfully to deal with persistent questions from his wife, his brother and colleague in a sane manner, and then sketching a sequence where Curtis joins his wife at the Lion’s Club Supper where he is pushed into a corner by Dewart and forced to react. When Dewart -who accuses Curtis of almost causing him to lose his job through his seemingly lunatic behaviour- challenges Curtis, he finally reaches a point of insanity which is delivered by Michael Shannon with an outstanding performance:
“You think I’m crazy? Is that what he [Dewart] told you? Well, listen up! There is a storm coming like nothing you have ever seen! And not a one of you is prepared for it! You think I’m crazy? […] Sleep well in your beds. Because if this thing comes true, there ain’t gonna be any more.”
When Nichols shows Curtis as a good hard-working American man, a caring husband and a loving father, now acting out his anxiety in such an intense form, viewers are almost forced to arrive at a conclusion that Curtis is losing his mind. At this stage, there is definitely no apocalyptic storm approaching Ohio. After all, Curtis’ town is not located in Tornado or Dixie Alleys of the US where one can expect cases of destructive tornados. In terms of allegory, and though Cleveland was one of the epicentres of the sub-prime bubble, Ohio is not a state which has been severely devastated by the financial crisis. The message at this point of the movie seems clear: Times are tough, but one can still survive by working hard, a touchstone of the American good life which still appears solid.
The Coming Storm
In this context, towards the end of the film Curtis appears to step back from his insanity. After locking his family in the shelter, he eventually accepts his wife’s pleas that there is no storm outside and opens the door to reveal sunshine. In doing so, it is made explicit that he is rejoining the nuclear family, accepting once again his role according to the standard conception of the American good life. This is not the end of the film, however. The final scene shows a gathering storm and tsunami.
We are made aware of the fact that this is no longer simply an expression of Curtis’ private madness by his deaf daughter making the sign for “storm”. We are, though, unsure as to whether this is a collective illusion or a real storm. Madness appears to have transferred to the next generation, just as it has between Curtis and his mother. Perhaps here Nichols is hinting at the existential anxieties faced by earlier generations of Americans, who also had their narratives of progress and the good life destabilised by conflicting stories of decline, and that this dissonance seems likely only to grow with the next generation.
However, though the forces presented in Curtis’ visions are external to the mundane life of working class Ohio, it is possible that a further allegory is intended in paralleling Curtis’ responses to perceived threats with those of the American government and American voters. Curtis becomes obsessed with safeguarding his family in a manner which actually creates the conditions for the realisation of his worst fears, manifested in the final “real” storm. Seen this way, perhaps this storm has been made real through Curtis’ choices in responding to earlier, illusory spectres: a true self-fulfilling prophecy. As Curtis grows more absorbed with building the storm shelter, he becomes indebted, loses his job and with it the medical insurance which pays for the treatment of his deaf daughter.
In much the same way, the US response to the threat of terror under George W Bush involved a massive increase in spending on defence and security, resulting in a spiralling budget deficit and cuts to social spending which serve to undermine basic tenets of the American good life. Similarly, Saddam Hussein had little to do with terrorism, but his overthrow by US forces created the conditions in which the rise of ISIS could take place. Trump’s victory represents a new and more extreme response to such perceived threats; but his rise to the Presidency may in fact mirror the self-fulfilling prophecy of the film in bringing forth disasters which had previously been mostly imagined.
One way of understanding Trump’s surprising victory is as the distillation of a national desire to take cover and shield against global storms. Clinton characterised Trump’s pledge to “make American great again” as “code for taking America backwards”, of retreat into an imagined past of certainty and security. Trump also clearly harks back to a recurrent strain of nativism and isolationism in American politics, which has always advanced a belief in protection through pulling up the drawbridge on the outside world. And of course, Trump’s signature policy pledge is to build a border wall between the US and Mexico- a physical manifestation of the imagined need to guard against intruding outside forces, which mirrors Curtis’ storm shelter.
Take Shelter’s final scenes may perhaps offer some pointers as to the coming years of US politics. The film, like Clinton, suggests that perceived threats to the American good life may have been highly exaggerated, with disastrous consequences. The seeming reality of the storm at the film’s close implies that Curtis’ attempt to return to his good life may have come too late, as the structures upon which it rests have already been critically undermined by his actions. In their misguided attempts to seek shelter both Curtis and US voters may finally- and in Curtis’ case literally- come to reap the whirlwind.