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December 12, 2011

Movie Review – Take Shelter (2011)


This taught, intense, and powerful film opens with grim shots of graying skies. Our hero, Curtis (Michael Shannon) stares at them in slight confusion. He’s wondering whether it’s going to start raining but he also feels something more, something sinister. When it does start to rain, Curtis rubs the rainwater on his hands and notes that it’s yellow and feels like motor oil. Curious….

Curtis is a happily married husband and father; his beautiful wife is Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their adorable, hearing-impaired daughter is Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis works in construction/landscaping with his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham). He sometimes sees those dark skies at work, too, and some of the thunder that he hears, coming out of clear skies, Dewart doesn’t hear.

One night, he begins having strange dreams that turn into terrible nightmares; in one, he and Hannah are almost attacked inside their home and as they cower in a corner, Curtis feels a terrible downward pulling sensation and the furniture in the living room lifts up and into the air, almost as if the house was lifted and then dropped back down. There is something about those nightmares that Curtis feels to be factual and not just the unconscious mind playing tricks on him. Visions of a coming apocalypse plague his mind, and not in a religious way. He fears for his family and also begins to fear for his sanity because of the way people react when he tells them about the storm, and because his mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 30 years before and he wonders if it’s hereditary.

Curtis grows scared. He notices that his house has an old tornado shelter in the back yard and he decides to “find the money” that would allow him to expand it. He spends some nights in there, in strange comfort, reading and filling it up with canned goods. But the townsfolk begin to talk about him behind his back: about the counselor he’s seeing; about the way he dug up the back yard in order to build a shelter for a storm that’s not going to come; about his schizophrenic mother. Curtis lives in a small town in Ohio and the talk is getting to him, atop the storm that he knows is coming.

Michael Shannon delivers a concentrated and eventually explosive performance that is nothing short of stellar. His large eyes depict many varying emotions throughout the film; Curtis is a wonderful family man yet when he does explode, he is frightening. The look of conviction never leaves his face and his voice commands exactly what his face does. Shannon is one of the best working actors in Hollywood right now, which is ironic seeing as he’s mostly played in independent films. His performance here is a powerhouse that deserves an Oscar nomination

Jessica Chastain, who also delivered a terrific performance in The Tree of Life, is excellent as the loving, caring wife. She’s given a strong female character to portray and plays it for keeps, worrying over whether Curtis is losing his mind. Samantha and Curtis’ scenes with Hannah are wonderful to behold. They truly seem like a real family caught on film.

This film is a slow burn (much like Drive, another great film from earlier in this year). The cinematography features many static shots and many tracking shots, always deliberately slow paced and nerve-wracking. The stark images of the storms are frightening and magnificent simultaneously. There is never anything extravagant about the filmmaking and never a moment when the director tries to show off, and it never feels like an independent film, aside from the deliberate slow pacing.

Take Shelter centers on the possibility of a man’s complete psychotic breakdown but it curiously stays away from the other possibility, namely that there might really be a devastating storm coming. We follow Curtis everywhere that he goes and experience everything that he experiences so we become him, in a manner of speaking. The film contains people and not characters and so it’s easy to feel sorry for Curtis, whether he’s crazy or not. And we’re never on the opposite side of his terrible nightmares; we never see his developing implosion from another perspective. It’s a very subjective experience, and a terrifying one at that.

If Curtis is crazy, then the film showcases the disintegration of a healthy mind; we watch as he delves into a psychotic state and cannot differentiate reality from delusion. If Curtis is not crazy then something is coming that’s just as frightening and that’s also going to be tough to endure. But then again, what’s worse than losing one’s mind? Rule of thumb: crazy people don’t know that they’re crazy.

If there’s one film Take Shelter reminded me of it is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). There is similar cinematography in some of the static single shots, where the subject is in the middle of the frame. There was always a feeling of dread, of loneliness, and a frightening quietness. When there is nothing to frighten us on the screen, we feel nervous simply because of the calm, quiet nature of the film.

The writer and director is Jeff Nichols, who previously wrote and directed another powerhouse character-driven drama called Shotgun Stories (2007), also starring Michael Shannon in a terrific and frightening performance. Nichols is a filmmaker to watch out for. He’s two for two so far and I want him to keep it up because his products are simultaneously frightening and terrifically entertaining.

I can’t praise this film enough. It’s brave, bold filmmaking. I was in a trance while watching this film, scared emotionally and shaking physically. I felt tense never knowing what was about to happen (all the way to the end, too!) and couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. You’ll be talking about this film for days, if not weeks after it’s over.

4 stars