Written & Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham
From the opening moments of this dark, dreamy tale it is clear that we are in for something quite extraordinary. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter begins with a nightmare and continues as such even after our protagonist Curtis LaForche wakes up.
Curtis’s nightmare comes in the form of a storm. Ominous clouds roll towards him, black and imposing and spitting greasy, yellow rain. This opening sequence, indicative of the rest of the film, is terrifying, beautiful and full of awe at nature’s power. When the dreams continue, and start to come in the form of waking hallucinations, Curtis must decide whether he is a prophet or a lunatic.
There is a history of mental illness in Curtis’ family as we see when he visits his mother, now in full-time care for paranoid schizophrenia.Curtis has untapped fears surrounding his own mental health and is terrified that he is starting to lose his grip on reality. However, he takes a “better safe than sorry” approach and begins to obsessively build a storm shelter so that he might keep his family safe if a storm does come.
The bulk of the film looks at Curtis’ declining mental health. Is he slipping further into some kind of hereditary psychosis or is he driving himself insane with paranoia? His descent into madness is terrifying to watch and while the film never really quite decides whether he is a prophet or a madman it keeps its feet firmly planted in reality and never loses sight of the true intention of the film, to watch a man as he disintegrates.
There is something very Cronenbergian about the crisis of masculinity going on in Take Shelter and the violent way in which it manifests itself. Also, the issue of the role of the man as provider and the loss of control in the current worldwide recession is a theme at the forefront of a lot of people's minds and one which is tackled here with grace and terrifying thoughtfulness. Curtis is a kind, loving husband and father but his paranoia, his fears for his family and his fears for his own sanity drive him to some very erratic behaviour that might have disastrous results for his family, storm or no storm. The relationship between Curtis and his wife and daughter is realistic and Jessica Chastain's earthy beauty compliments the character's strength, trust, intelligence and warmth just perfectly. As they struggle to keep their marriage together despite Curtis's many misadventures, one can feel her shock that something that was once so strong could be taken from her so cruelly.
Take Shelter is a beautiful film. It is a lyrical film and it is a poetic film. It is not necessarily a film that provides answers but it is not ever trying to riddle you. The script is tight, pitch-perfect and nicely paced suggesting that Jeff Nichols is as skilled as a writer as he is a director. Shot with unbelievable beauty by lenser Adam Stone, the film looks and feels profoundly alluring and is a pleasure to behold throughout. However, the real heart of the film rests on the shoulders of Michael Shannon, who is superb here as the desperate Curtis. He is cuddly enough to be sympathetic but giant enough to be terrifying. His performance is a towering achievement and, in my eyes, cements him as one of the most interesting actors working today. This is the kind of performance that rarely comes around and he tackles the subtle moments and the melodrama with equal elegance. If there is something to be said against the film it is the final few minutes which have proven to be divisive for audiences. However, I felt that the more the ending sat with me and I mulled it over in my head, the more I felt comfortable with it and the looming question mark it leaves the audience with.
Part family drama, part disaster movie, part psychological thriller and part horror, this truly unique film must be seen on the big screen if at all possible and I can only implore people to make the effort to go out and give this film your money. Take Shelter is a low-budget (not that you can tell) masterpiece that truly deserves your attention.
- Charlene Lydon