Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
4 out of 5 stars
There can be something positively terrifying about a performance that makes you tense. What Michael Shannon miraculously achieves in Take Shelter goes beyond that, and into embodiment.
With courage, talent and vulnerability, he takes the viewer into the mind of an early-onset schizophrenic, revealing a man torn between apocalyptic premonitions and his relationships with family and friends.
The movie opens on Curtis (Shannon), a construction worker with growing concerns about the clouds and greasy rain that persistently loom over his land. Inside his household we enter domestic normality, where his loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), attentively upholds family breakfasts and points of discussion. Together they raise their deaf preschooler in what feels like parental conviction and not plot contrivance.
Early in Take Shelter, we become familiar with Curtis’ work routine, as well as his loyal co-worker, Dewart (Sean Whigham). Similarly, Samantha’s outside life is explored, as she divides her time between entrepreneurial interests and her daughter’s sign language classes.
The film shifts though, and soon Curtis begins suffering from night terrors that consume his consciousness. The dreams retain similar motifs of unruly storms that turn familiar faces into murderous souls. In one instance, a vicious nightmare involving the beloved family dog leaves Curtis with a mysteriously sore arm and distrust towards the canine.
When his visions cease to curtail and begin to extend into real life delusions, the separation between prophecy and lunacy symbolically merge with the construction of a backyard storm shelter.
The film is so delicate, so entrenched in Curtis’ intensity that you hold your breath as his social sphere starts breaking away. Events of grave consequence take effect and soon the heart of the film splits into two unsettling realisms: the whispering gossip of his sanity, and the confidence of his own doom’s day suspicions.
Michael Shannon inhabits his extraordinary performance with a scary charisma that cannot be described, but observed. He knows he has a problem. He knows he needs help. When the story reveals a family history of mental illness, he seeks counseling. Hopelessly, the sessions amount to no more than empty compassion and textbook rhetoric, leaving Curtis, and us, in a state of despondency.
The movie excels through its braveness, which requires our empathy as we interpret the decisions made. Why does Curtis insist on building something so absurd at the risk of losing everything? How the film balances dream logic with the disintegration of relationships, marriage and finances is one of its great strengths.
It is precisely the brand of drama that defines Take Shelter, investing heavily in emotional paranoia, as well as post- 9/11 angst and uncertainty.
For a picture of such power, it is refreshing to see the restraint that director Jeff Nichols brings to the narrative. Wisely, he avoids religious aspects of Curtis’ apocalypse and keeps it very close to life, making forces of nature vengeful and destructive right until the very end.
Many films have addressed the plight of mental health, but few rarely seem to live them out. This one does it with a quiet fearlessness that has you thinking days afterwards.