Take Shelter: A Cinematic Study on Paranoid Schizophrenia


"It's more than a dream, it's feelings."

In wake of the tragic mass shootings that have been plaguing our nation for years now, people are more passionate about finding a solution to this problem now than ever before. While a lot of people hastily jump to gun control as the solution, I have to disagree. I think the core of this issue lies in mental health. There are a multitude of different disorders that can lead to such behavior. In this case, I’ll just be exploring the possibilities of paranoid schizophrenia in these people. Now, do I have a solution? Absolutely not. However, getting inside the mind of these people is key to starting down that path toward finding a solution. 


Take Shelter, a 2011 psychological thriller starring Michael Shannon, is probably one of the best character studies in film I have ever seen. Shannon portrays Curtis, a father/husband in Ohio who begins having terrifying dreams and hallucinations echoing the apocalypse. His mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at around the same age as Curtis in the film. As you watch, you have both a 3rd person and 1st person look at Curtis and his strange behavior.


The beautiful thing about this film is that it gives you all the reasoning and background knowledge on why Curtis is acting so strange. These are the hidden events we never see. I constantly found myself paralleling Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Parkland, FL from a few weeks ago. While Curtis only really had one violent outburst, we see how and why he starts acting with such contempt, fear, and paranoia around certain people.


As an example, we see that Curtis has nightmarish dreams involving people in his everyday life. Now, while those people never did anything to Curtis, the human mind does a fascinating job at using symbols from everyday life to represent our suppressed issues. In one dream, Curtis is at work and his co-worker, whom he’s been friends with for years, and his eyes turn demonic and he begins to come at Curtis with an axe. In response, Curtis asks his boss at work for his friend to be moved off his crew and placed somewhere else. Curtis explains that the dreams are much more than dreams. They’re “feeling.” Everything he sees, he feels. He knows that they are dreams, however the responsive feelings of fear and paranoia are very real.


With mass shootings, we see that for the most part they aren’t aimed at specific individuals, as much as they are aimed at specific groups of people. In this Cruz case, we see the shooting was aimed at his peers. I think the quick reasoning a lot of self-proclaimed Social media psychologists give for this is bullying. While yes, that is true some of the time, is it outlandish to think that the bullying was in response to this initial strange behavior exhibited by Cruz? In Curtis’ case in Take Shelter, we see that this random removal of his friend from the crew lead to Curtis being beaten by that same friend. Curtis’ strange behavior was the onset of this bullying. At this point, Curtis has had enough and that’s when he flips his lid on some Noah’s Ark type shit and tells everyone they are essentially going to die from the impending storm.


Now parallel, Nikolas Cruz. The kids in school said they all knew if anyone were to do this it would be him. Hell, we all knew that one kid in school who we definitely needed to keep an extra eye on just in case. But why is that? He was a little off, maybe he said some pretty off the wall shit, the list goes on and on. Take Shelter does such a beautiful job of showing you this fine line between reality and the dream world. While Curtis is lost between what is real and what is not, so are we. The fact that we can get that inside look is something both beautiful and important. For 2 hours, we get to live as a paranoid schizophrenic. We feel for Curtis and we root for him. We are torn when we see the strain his marriage and friendships take, because we know it’s not something done by the will power of Curtis, himself. While I obviously do not condone nor am I excusing Nikolas Cruz for his actions, this film allows me to look at him with more curiosity and sympathy as opposed to hate. My disgust lies more in the action, than on the kid himself. Mental illness was present in his past and he had also recently dealt with the death of his mother, who he was very close with. Take Shelter makes note that Curtis’ father had also passed soon before these dreams began. Sometimes all it takes is an event that takes a heavy psychological toll on you to awaken the true full power of the mental illness already inside of you.  


In Nikolas Cruz’s case, I think it’s very plausible that he could be fighting something like paranoid schizophrenia or another mental illness in which this sense of hate and paranoia that stems from disassociation of reality comes to the forefront of his everyday life. At this point, this dreamlike state is intertwined with his daily life. In keeping with the theory that the bullying might have stemmed from Nikolas’ behavior and that the shooting was not just a response to bullying, I think there’s a very good case in arguing that his mind has taken suppressed issues and used his peers and those around him as symbols to represent those things. However, Nikolas just sees them and feels fear or anger like he does in these hallucinations and dreams perhaps long before they ever acted with any aggression toward him.


Again, this is all just theoretical and just one possible idea of many. I have no idea if Cruz is a schizophrenic, however I do think it is an option. There are hundreds of great films that have presented beautiful character studies on psychological issues, so there are plenty more out there that could help supplement the reasoning for these mass shooters actions. Take Shelter is simply just one of them. While, yes guns should be regulated to a higher regard, to think that that is the issue is absurd. I wholeheartedly believe that mental health is the 100% driving force behind these unspeakable actions. Luckily, great films like this allow us a rare and unique insight into these issues so we can begin to inch closer to the solution we are longing for as a civilization.