By Linc Leifeste | October 27, 2011
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart
After watching Jeff Nichols’ gripping Take Shelter, with its slowly building aura of foreboding, I couldn’t help but appreciate his sense of timing. This is the perfect movie for our trying times, masterfully tapping into the apocalyptic foreboding felt by many during these days of economic and environmental (at least here in Texas with endless drought and wildfires) upheaval.
Curtis Laforche (Michael Shannon), a mid-30’s Ohio sand miner and family man, is having a rough go of it. He’s having apocalyptic dreams and visions, of ominous thunderstorms on the verge of engulfing his home and family, with rolling thunder and flashing lightning lashing out of clouds darker than night. Even more disturbing are his dreams of the family dog suddenly turning on him and his family, sinking its teeth viciously into his arm, or of faceless zombie-like people attacking his truck, breaking out the window and snatching his daughter.
And the lines between dream and reality are becoming more and more blurred for Curtis. After the dog bite dream, his arm is in severe pain all day. There are loud claps of thunder on clear days. Birds are flying in ominous and unusual patterns. He’s beginning to see storm clouds in his waking hours that might not even be there at all. Weighing heavily on Curtis is the knowledge that his mom was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was ten years old. He’s done some research on symptoms and realizes it’s possible that he’s falling prey to the same dread disease but he’s unable to determine if he’s on the verge of the apocalypse or just one of a more personal nature. Nichols does a masterful job of leaving the audience just as unsure while keenly aware that either fate is equally terrifying.
Becoming increasingly convinced that what he is seeing are signs of impending destruction, Curtis decides he needs to expand a small storm shelter in the backyard. In the process, he makes several poor professional and financial decisions that threaten to destroy his livelihood. To make matters worse, Curtis and his family are barely treading water financially. Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) is a stay-at-home mom who brings in a little extra income through selling her craftwork, putting the money away to save for a family vacation. Their daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) is hearing-impaired but the family is hopeful that a scheduled surgery will change that, a surgery that is dependent on Curtis’ health insurance and his ability to continue to walk the tight-rope of functioning normally on the outside while his world is in complete upheaval internally.
Take Shelter is brilliantly cast from bottom to top. With a supporting cast that truly look and sound like the working class people they’re representing, Nichols gets the details of this story of middle-America right. Michael Shannon’s expressive face, with its deep lines and character (imagine a younger Ray Liotta with better acting chops), perfectly conveys Curtis’ ever-increasing anxiety, fear and despair. Jessica Chastain, the only person in the movie with Hollywood-good looks, so inhabits her role as the faithful and loving mother and wife, courageously fighting an unseen enemy destroying her family’s well-being, that you never doubt her.
With its big-budget (yet tasteful) CGI special effects and slow-paced character driven story, Take Shelter manages to combine the best of indie film and Hollywood blockbuster, putting me in mind several times of the Coen Brothers’ 2009 masterpiece A Serious Man. Speaking of pacing, if this film has a flaw it would probably be that super-slow pacing combined with a fairly lengthy run time, something I’m sure will be a problem for a portion of the viewing audience (for the record, I never found myself bored). Likewise, without giving anything away, the film chillingly ends on what I’m sure will be a divisive note for its viewing audience, making definitive interpretation of what they’ve just seen even more challenging.