Directed by Jeff Nichols
Screenplay by Jeff Nichols
Michael Shannon as Curtis
Jessica Chastain as Samantha
Tova Stewart as Hannah
Shea Whigham as Dewart
Katy Mixon as Nat
Natasha Randall as Cammie
How long is Take Shelter? 120 minutes.
What is Take Shelter rated? R for some language.
‘Shelter’ From The Storm
Most end-of-the-world films have a tendency to avoid the human element. Sure, the filmmakers might try to inject “people” into their movies, but was anyone really suckered in by The Day After Tomorrow‘s cancer kid or John Cusack’s family in 2012? Focusing on family instead of effects and fear rather than action, director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols (who only has one previous work, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, to his credit) created one of the year’s best films in the powerful pre-apocalyptic tale Take Shelter.
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) stars as Curtis, an average blue-collar laborer in an average Midwestern town, who starts having weird dreams featuring horrific rainstorms and unnamed/faceless threats against himself and his daughter. At first, he hides these visions from his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, who exploded onto the screen this year with roles in The Tree of Life, The Debt, and The Help) and hearing impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart, in her first role). However, the dread, paranoia, and overwhelming sense of despair that emerges from the nightmares ends up too powerful for him to control. His behavior (including supplementing his storm shelter with a storage container using heavy equipment he “borrowed” from his job) becomes increasingly erratic, without being manic-crazy. Meanwhile, Samantha is trapped wanting to support her husband (even if she doesn’t actually believe him), while recognizing the devastating impact these changes have on the family and their lives.
What differentiates Take Shelter from its contemporaries is how it takes a serious look at someone in Curtis’ position. He grows quiet and introspective, but most of his actions (at least at the start) appear relatively normal. When he stockpiles food, it’s done as a shopping trip, not a mad dash to get everything he possibly can. His fallout shelter isn’t some incredible facility, but a grimy, grungy hole with dirty cots, minimal supplies, and practically no working lights. It appears put together by a guy who knows how to build stuff, but who is not an engineering genius. He analyzes his situation believably (e.g. he lacks a Giant Wall O’ Concurrent Conspiracies), and he first looks towards books about mental illness rather than prophecy. Yet no matter how much logic he attempts to use to come up with an answer, nothing can ease his fears. Additionally, even though Curtis is essentially a prophet, he is not a religious man, and questions of religion or God barely play a role in the character’s attempt to understand his situation.
Over the past few years, Michael Shannon has emerged one of the most compelling actors working today (and his casting as Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot is by far the best news to come from that film). As the dark, Rex Banner-esque Agent Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, Shannon serves as one of the HBO series’ highlights, and his baptism scene from last season is easily one of the show’s greatest scenes. In his most notable roles, Shannon tends to work best as a frightening, imposing, and weird figure, and in Take Shelter Curtis might adopt these qualities, but not by choice. Prior to the visions, Curtis was a good man, a good father, a good husband, and a good friend — not a simmering cauldron of anger ready to explode. But once he finds himself unable to ignore his hallucinations, he turns into a man scared both of himself and of what might be coming, and Shannon portrays him as a man torn in all different directions. He knows why he shouldn’t believe in the dreams, but they are too strong for him not to give them any credence. Curtis’ family has a history of paranoid schizophrenia, and while that might explain what he is currently going through, the approaching storm feels too real to merely discount.
Curtis’ major concern, of course, is saving his wife and daughter. Everything he does is to preserve their lives, and he must wrestle with what saving them actually means. By building his shelter, he will protect them on the off chance that the end actually does come. Alternatively, by building his shelter, he is destroying them in the likelihood that the end doesn’t happen. He knows all of this but has no way to know the right path to take.
Jessica Chastain, also terrific in The Tree of Life, turns in another remarkable performance here. As lost and as frightened as her husband but without the “solace” of the visions, Samantha sees how much he believes and is similarly desperate to preserve her family. Though she doesn’t wholly discount what he is dealing with, she doesn’t treat him with kid gloves either. Chastain shows how someone can hit various breaking points, but without any of them being the proverbial “straw.”
Whether despite the apocalypse scenario or because of it, Take Shelter offers a genuineness to the family/psychological drama that most films fail to even attempt. Lacking melodrama, the struggles faced by Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah seem real, and Nichols never stops presenting them as a typical family forced to deal with an uncomfortable but not otherwordly situation. Both emotional and suspenseful, Take Shelter makes a limousine chase through the streets of Los Angeles as hollow as the CGI used to create the automobile.