There are several kinds of people waiting on the apocalypse. Some wait eagerly for the opportunity to rise to heaven while the naysayers stare skyward, jaws agape, while some think of the end of the world not in terms of ascension but in terms of breakdown: mass chaos, scarcity of resources, infrastructural cave-in. We call the latter survivalists: people who bury fifty-gallon oil drums filled with rice in secret spots in the forest, or who practice shooting crossbows off the backs of motorcycles, or who have planned meeting places stocked with canned goods, weapons, and water. Survivalists might use the company backhoe and their retirement savings to dig a shelter in the backyard, one that can withstand a storm—of rain or of desperate masses—or they might mod their cars and motorcycles with flamethrowers, presumably to fend off the crazy hordes that take to the road in the inevitable gas war.
Those last two examples come from the 2011 films Take Shelter and Bellflower, respectively, both of which are concerned with the impending apocalypse, real and imagined. That these films should surface now isn’t surprising; everyone from Harold Camping to environmental scientists to the ancient Mayan calendar tells us it’s about time, and, besides, plenty of filmmakers got there first. The significance of these two films is that they take a look not so much at the apocalypse itself but at how human relationships blossom and crumble in the days preceding it. The poster for Take Shelter depicts Curtis (Michael Shannon) wrapping protective arms around his wife and daughter against an ominous bird-blackened sky. Bellflower’s shows Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Milly (Jessie Wiseman) in a deep embrace against a backdrop of fiery explosion. In the end, both images seem to say that what’s fascinating about the apocalypse isn’t necessarily what we do to protect ourselves—it’s what we do to protect the ones we love.
Take Shelter is a tightly wound, formally precise potboiler about a man unable to shake his premonition that a giant storm will destroy humanity, and thus compelled to create a shelter to hide away with his family. Bellflower, which by comparison is something of a hot mess (it was shot for no money on a homemade camera, albeit one that takes beautiful pictures, and the story is loose and watery, as though pieced together in the editing room), is about two friends who dream of running their own Mad Max operation, keeping their fingers crossed for, well, a giant storm that will destroy humanity. Curtis’s preparation for the apocalypse is dutiful, somber; Woodrow and his friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) build their arsenal and fleet with wide-eyed glee. Curtis wishes he were wrong. Woodrow and Aiden hope they’re not.
Differences aside, both films benefit from raw, visceral camera work and a strong sense of place, and both continually stoke fires of impending doom. And, just as both take a fascinating look at obsession with the end, we might do well to obsess for a moment over their own respective endings. Thought experiment: what if Take Shelter concluded with Bellflower’s ending, and vice versa?
Begin in Take Shelter at that elusive moment when the story could credibly go in any direction. Curtis has locked his family in the storm cellar. Will he swallow the key? Will he keep them underground until they all starve? Will he kill them in a fever dream? (Is that what we’ve been waiting for?) Is that clanking sound on the metal door the sound of desperate townspeople trying to escape acid rain and hurricane winds? Was Curtis right all along? Or is it nothing?
Turns out it’s nothing. Curtis doesn’t swallow the key, and when he and his family emerge from the shelter, the outside world is sunny, calm, peaceful; it seems he was delusional. But despite losing his job and almost losing his family, he has been enriched by the experience: he has confronted his inability to cope with the inevitable loss of all that he holds dear—if not now, at the end of a storm, then eventually, at the hands of old age or illness or some other relatively peaceable cause of death. He moves on, rebuilds his life, becomes a wiser and more sensitive man in some new town by the ocean. The end. Without an apocalypse, Take Shelter becomes a movie about paranoia, not premonition, and having to deal with the ephemeral nature of existence.
Our revision to Bellflower, on the other hand, rescues the film from what is currently a long, confusing, cartoonishly violent denouement. We start with Woodrow waking up horrified to find he’s been tattooed with a beard—a permanent disfiguration in some ways worse, or at least less honorable, than an amputated limb. He’s stabbed his girlfriend, or something. People are dead. The cops should be close on his tail. Everything is fucked. All the flamethrowers, all the mods to his car, all the motorcycle accidents and head injuries—all for nothing. Some fool’s dream. By now the audience has forgotten what all that hair-trigger madness was for, anyway.
Until, that is, a hydrogen bomb (let’s say) puts it all into immediate, all-silencing perspective. Suddenly Woodrow’s girl troubles are the least of his worries—now everything is really fucked. Most people are dead. No telling what kind of people are on his tail. His tattoo-beard goes from disfiguring insult to ritual marking for a new tribe of wasteland warlords. A new kind of hair-trigger madness is implicit.
One might argue that ending thusly would invalidate the film’s critique of violence and masculinity. But then that critique was a weak subtext to begin with, and who’s to say the H-bomb wouldn’t offer a better examination of those subjects? What would Woodrow and Aiden do in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with their cars and their flamethrowers? Where would they go? Whom would they torch? Most likely they’d just drive around aimlessly, holding up liquor stores for forties—which they’d drink, together, sitting on rocks, overlooking a desert not all that different than the rest of Southern California as it looks right about now.