Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

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