3.5 Stars out of 4
Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter is a quiet, chilling drama that exists entirely under your skin. With bold austerity, Michael Shannon delivers another performance that proves he is in control of his characters as they descend into madness. But is husband-father Curtis LaForche (that is Shannon) insane? In Hollywood films, this would be the most important question. But Take Shelter inserts fascinating subtleties within the seams of this question. With impending dread, the film captures a man’s apocalyptic delusions within a seemingly idyllic American suburb.
One of the first shots involve Curtis staring up at the sky. Fortunately, this is no UFO sighting (Spielberg took the night off) but an oncoming surge of ominous clouds and rainwater the color of motor oil. We can’t be sure if it is real or, if it is not, what caused Curtis to experience these delusions. Take Shelter is not interested in explaining Curtis’s psychology, and I like to think Shannon’s rough-and-rutted face says enough.
He lives with wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, what a year for her) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Both fit right into the story, never overshadowed by Shannon’s prevailing presence. While Take Shelter features startling psychological sequences, it is heavily empowered by the elements of family life. The film is as much about unsettling dreams (Curtis has a lot of them) as it is about dealing with the unhinging state of reality. You can see where the film develops its anxiety.
Backed (and at times undercut) by Take Shelter’s tone is a slow, startlingly deliberate pace. But unlike David Lynch’s Blue Velvet – another film about the not-as-pleasant-as-you-might-think American suburb – Take Shelter gets subtler and subtler, probably to curb the explicit nature of Curtis’s delusions. The film never goes over-the-top, and that deserves some merit. In fact, it feels very real, dealing with everyday issues – paying the bills, going to work – with a strange authenticity.
Although the setting is Ohio, I can’t be sure of the date. In a particular scene, one character says “times are tough”, which is typically a tautology for the recent Financial Crisis. Money plays a noticeable role in the film, people often commenting on prices, the cheapest deals at stores, and there is serious noise when Curtis gets a loan to build a shelter. I couldn’t help but think of the 1950s, when American nuclear families were so afraid of the atomic bomb. But maybe I am reaching too far.
What isn’t a stretch is the praise of Shannon and Chastain’s performance. Their characters have an unwavering love for each other, which makes the film remarkably sincere. Nichols – who did Shotgun Stories also with Shannon – is not afraid at mixing Curtis’s psychosis into a plain and effective character drama. The special effects, meanwhile, are not meant for Hollywood show-and-tell, but to delve deep into an unquenchable paranoia.
I’ve seen a lot of disaster movies this year. However, few have belonged in the array of Hollywood blockbusters. With Emmerich dialing it down with Anonymous, other directors – better ones for that matter – have taken the genre and humanized it. It seems to be more about how we see life as it brushes against death, instead of just running away from CGI tidal waves. I recall Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (also with Chastain), Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, and now this. These films have made great use of the last shot. Melancholia’s is simply unforgettable, but Take Shelter demonstrates an equally visceral and cathartic final shot. All through the reflection of a window. I’ll leave it there.
Take Shelter features strong performances and a compelling story. I’m still not sure what to think of the climax; it’s one that – quite literally – just blows by. But Take Shelter is about an individual’s fears while he deals with supporting his family, and – at times – only himself. Michael Shannon remains that individual you could easily point out in a crowd of a million. In Take Shelter, his presence reigns but director Nichols – born in a tiny Arkansas town called Little Rock – is also interested in putting the immediacy of reality in the foreground, as it confronts doom from above. It’s very good. Like Shannon, Take Shelter just looms in your mind.