Take Shelter (2011) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart
Small role: Kathy Baker
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Review published March 14, 2016
Michael Shannon (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, World Trade Center) stars as Curtis LaForche, a prosperous contractor living in small-town Ohio whose life threatens to unravel when he begins to receive nightmarish visions of an impending storm, with dreams that showcase himself, his loving wife Samantha (Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), or his hearing-impaired six-year-old daughter Hannah (Stewart), in harm's way. Unnerved by what he feels could be some sort of apocalyptic omens, he undertakes extending an old storm shelter behind the family home, putting his work, finances, and family life in jeopardy as he goes into the project full bore. Samantha begins to notice a change, but it's Curtis who is most concerned about his odd behavior, as his mother (Baker, 13 Going on 30) had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and put into assisted at around the same age as Curtis.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories) takes on the subject matter of mental illness in this wholly unique drama, which brilliantly gives us the disturbing mindset of the protagonist, and allows us to experiences all of the strangeness and horrors of how one's life could so quickly and easily fall apart from a disease they have little control over. It's also a delicate topic, as many films that cover the same ground have come off as patronizing, unrealistic, or exploitative. Rather than see Curtis' behavior externally, we get inside his deteriorating mind with his visions, which can be especially eerie when his reality and fantasies begin to merge until one is impossible for him to separate from the other, making such things as simple as driving a potential life-and-death situation for himself, other drivers, and his family as passengers.
Take Shelter also benefits from two amazing performances from Michael Shannon, who especially excels at playing intense but vulnerable characters, and the always riveting Jessica Chastain, who can show that mix of fear, anger, and inner strength better than most, both of whom emerge from the film showing why they are considered among the best actors working today. Their relationship and reactions feel authentic and their characters feel very lived in, creating an instant emotional connection to them and their situations that has us hoping throughout for any sort of possible happy outcome, wondering even if such a thing is possible for a family in their situation, especially as he begins to alienate himself from all those around him.
The film starts off with Curtis being complimented by his best friend Dewart, played by Shea Whigham (Machete), for having what he considers a very good life. What follows is the danger, fear and heartbreak of seeing the life a man has been able to build erode - family, friends, job, house, community - they all could so easily turn just because he is seeing things he shouldn't see. In this way, it taps into that fear that we all have, of an impending disaster, wiping away everything we have. There are allusions to the state of the economy in the film, of dwindling benefits, of a difficult job market, that suggests that, if someone were to lose what they have, it's not going to be easy to ever get back again. The economic storm is replaced here by a quite literal one, a metaphor of the housing market crash of the late 2000s that rocked working-class families like Curtis's to their knees. For a man in construction who has spent a lifetime building, to see everything he has built destroyed, and at his own hands, has to be the worst nightmare he could imagine.
And then there's the ending, which is ambiguous, resulting in many viewer interpretations, some which undo theories, and other which bring in new ones. I have no answers -- is Curtis madman or a prophet, neither or both, and does it matter? I do think it's a worthy film and ending to mull over.
With a power and grace to show both the beauty of a man's life and the horrors of his inner mind, Take Shelter emerges as a thought-provoking and original work from a filmmaker who is surprisingly mature for Jeff Nichols, who only has one prior credit to his name. This isn't luck; this could only be the work of a director who is a master of his craft.
©2016 Vince Leo