Peak Oil Flicks

Take Shelter (2011)

 Brain Storms

“I’m afraid something’s coming – something that’s not right. I can’t explain it. I just need you to believe it.”

Curtis LaForche, an excavation worker in a small Ohio town, has a troubling secret. He feels brown, gelatinous rain coating his skin. He sees roiling, funnel clouds on a bright, sunny day. Swarms of black birds darken the sky and plummet, dead, to earth. Earthquake tremors shake the ground under his feet.

His problem is that none of his family or friends can see or feel any of this, and he is too afraid and ashamed to tell them.

Curtis is the typical strong, silent man who “sucks it up” and keeps his anguish inside.  A quietly devoted, although not emotionally expressive, husband and father, he becomes more and more panicked and yet more isolated as Nature itself seems to revolt. During the course of “Take Shelter,” the new film now in theaters, we can read the unnamed fears Curtis experiences as manifestations of the “Peak Everything” crisis gripping the US and the globe: economic insecurity, degradation of natural systems, and the dilemma of meeting our families’ needs with a dwindling energy source beyond our control.

The film’s background noise is the constant money stress that pervades our national life. Like many Americans, Curtis attempts to manage his anxiety with expensive psychiatric medications that his inadequate insurance barely covers. Having lost his job, he is forced to take a risky loan.

As the strange incidences escalate to hallucinations of furniture breaking free of gravity and levitating, he cries out, “Is anyone seeing this?” In despair, he confronts his neighbors at a community potluck: “Sleep well in your beds. There is a storm coming like nothing you have ever seen, and not one of you is prepared for it. If this thing comes true, there ain’t gonna be anymore.” He is met with disbelief and pity.

But Curtis's failure to articulate is also our own. Anyone who knows about the pending social and ecological upheaval constantly struggles with how to convey this information to friends and family. How to approach the subject without sounding like a pessimistic doomer, a gun-toting survivalist, anti-capitalist, smug or just plain crazy? At any rate, we’re not likely to be welcome guests making small talk at cocktail parties or the family Thanksgiving dinner (“Excuse me, but the world as you know it is ending. Please pass the onion dip.”)

More than the factual explanations, it is the psychological dimensions that make it difficult for people to  absorb the need for new arrangements to meet our financial and energy needs, while adapting to the limits the nature imposes.  Luckily for us, the website “Peak Oil Blues” ( tackles this issue directly. Kathy McMahon, a clinical psychologist, who started the website in 2006,  writes, “My worldview was dramatically changed when I learned about Peak Oil and began to read about all the related issues…I was trying to come to grips with a future cultural transformation that was to be so dramatic, so overwhelming, it disturbed my equilibrium and challenged my very sense of reality… I now believe that there is a way to begin to understand the emotional impact of Peak Oil and to share that knowledge with others to help them move forward.” The site is a valuable resource for wisdom on navigating new psychological terrain.

Like Curtis, many of us are also confused about what course of action will give us maximum physical and financial security in the times ahead. We wonder, what can I do as a first, second, and third step to be prepared for change? Hoard gold? Stock walnut shells and corncobs as alternative tender? The lack of a clear path leaves us vulnerable to anxiety and immobilization.

Fear of invaders leads Curtis to take radical steps to protect his family. He decides to enlarge and move his wife and young daughter to the underground storm shelter in their backyard. He lays in supplies of canned goods and beans and generators. But what will he – or we – do if fuel for the generator or the ventilation pump runs out, the centralized electrical grid plunges  our town into darkness, and long-distance trucks stop delivering food?

Finally, and belatedly, he confesses to his wife the inner storm he is experiencing. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves open the question of whether he is vindicated or not.

”Take Shelter” skillfully captures the texture of small-town life, where personal connections still balance coldly impersonal institutions, neighborhood business owners know your name, and co-workers offer small acts of kindness and generosity. Michael Shannon gives a fine performance as Curtis, even if he is largely playing variations on one emotion register (namely, fear and dread). It’s also refreshing to see working-class characters’ lives presented as interesting and complex, rather than the one-dimensional yokels of standard Hollywood fare.

Ultimately, the question “Take Shelter” asks is not so much whether Curtis is mentally ill. The real issue is how we choose to react when the certainties of our accepted reality are swept away, either with a crash or through gradual erosion. The choices tentatively indicate that community, not isolation, mitigates crisis and increases resilience; that confronting new realities, rather than hiding in a mental cellar, may lead to better, if inevitably partial, answers. “Take Shelter,” is not an easy or entertaining film to watch, but it raises deep, urgent questions that need to be brought into the cultural discussion.