The impulse to protect one’s family is strong. But what happens when that impulse becomes an addiction, when the growing sense of dread about your family’s well-being becomes so overpowering and all-encompassing that you risk losing the very family you’re trying to protect? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Take Shelter. I have started this review at least half-a-dozen times. Some versions of the review delved right into a discussion of the plot, which focuses on Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a man who begins acting in a way increasingly perplexing to his family and friends because of his private visions of impending doom. Other versions began talking about the finesse with which director Jeff Nichols manages to take a thriller-type film and turn it into a study in paranoia and psychosis. And still other versions jumped into the technical aspects of the film, particularly its absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Ultimately, the problem I’m having is that there is so much I love about Take Shelter that I just don’t know where to begin or how to unpack it.
It’s been a few weeks now since I’ve actually seen the film (Take Shelter is one of the screenings that Dustin and I took in at Sundance last month). Having had time to reflect on it, many things stick with me, but what sticks with me most is the overall performance of Michael Shannon. Although it’s only February, and we won’t even know who will take home the Oscars from last years slate of films for another few-odd days, I have no problem predicting that Shannon is a lock for a best actor nod next year, and any actor will be hard-pressed to deliver a performance this year more deserving of taking the prize home. Because Shannon’s performance is fantastic. As the film opens, Shannon’s Curtis is having darkly disturbed dreams, which appear to border on visions, of a coming Storm. Curtis wants nothing more than to protect his family, wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), and as his dreams become more realistic and begin to bleed into his waking life, he begins to take action. This eventually leads to him putting his family into a precarious financial position as he starts building a shipping-container-based shelter under their backyard.
But the thing is, Shannon’s family has a history of mental illness. Is there really doom, which Curtis is somehow having premonitions of, or is he simply succumbing to a genetic predisposition? Curtis, himself, is unsure of the answer, yet he is unable to stop himself from moving forward, and it’s in this murky internal conflict that the film lives and breathes. And Nichols offers an amazing insight into Curtis’ perspective — the thrill of this thriller isn’t any action, but in absorbing and feeling Curtis’ own growing paranoia. It’s both riveting and stifling.
Shannon is, of course, this hulk of a man, and he is fully capable of using that to his advantage, portraying Curtis in a way way that absolutely terrifies. But Shannon’s performance offers so much more, particularly when he plays against his build, portraying this beast of a man who feels so afraid and broken because he’s not sure he can even trust his own mind anymore, nor is he sure he can do the one thing he cares about, keep his family safe. And speaking of that family, Jessica Chastain is lovely as Curtis’ wife. Samantha could have been written simplistically, taking the easy way out, but the movie makes her much a stronger, loving character — Chastain believably portrays a wife who is afraid yet resolved and understanding, and she may very well garner some award attention of her own this time next year.
As I’ve said, Nichols manages to toe the line between actual thriller and psychological thriller splendidly. The writing is deceptively complex, and visually, the film is both as wide and expansive as the farm plains of Ohio, and as narrow and taught as a collapsing mind. The cinematography is particularly gorgeous, especially during the repeated rain storms that may or not actually be taking place over the course of the film. Some may find Take Shelter’s intensely ambiguous ending a disappointment, but it’s really the perfect and only way to end the film. I can’t really say more about that ending, but it’s great, as is the film as a whole. Take Shelter is simply a stunning film.
Take Shelter screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics before the festival even began.