Ingeniously bouncing off current events and the nation’s downbeat mood, Take Shelter is a dark, Gothic tale of misunderstood prophecy and a sobering lesson on the state of mental health care in rural America, suggesting comparisons with the early work of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick.
Take Shelter revolves around Curtis (Michael Shannon), an ordinary Ohio husband and father, who begins having a series of terrifying nightmares. Curtis has recently been promoted to a supervisor position at his construction firm, and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is increasingly anxious about how his wobbly personal behaviour will affect their financial future. It’s a story of a man plagued by dreams, afflicted with paranoid visions, and caught up in forces beyond his control.
Take Shelter is propelled by a brilliant lead performance, building an ever-tightening knot of tension around an excellent Shannon. Always a commanding physical presence, Shannon displays a gravity, a sense of quiet desperation, a gut-wrenching inner turmoil that’s shattering. He modulates Nichols’ portrait of a good man pushed beyond the brink of sanity, whose mind and life seem to unravel before our eyes. His marvelously compassionate, molar-grinding performance should put him in the running for the Oscar.
If Shannon’s anguished, brooding Curtis is the movie’s centerpiece, Chastain’s Samantha provides its moral tether. Together, they turn a simple climax into an emotional wallop. Disturbing and richly drawn, Take Shelter is a relentless exploration of the latent terrors that bedevil contemporary life, a horror movie that will trouble your sleep, and an intense psychological thriller that builds toward an explosive conclusion.
What makes this gripping, compact tale of marriage, madness, and faith unusual is that it works so well on all levels. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) has the rare ability to think big and work small. He doles out information as strategically as a government official, and delivers a modern American epic with extraordinary restraint. With a few deft allusions, Nichols emphasizes the pressure on Curtis and Samantha coming from all directions: extreme weather and climate change, economic havoc, vanishing healthcare, and the prospect of unemployment and bankruptcy are very real threats.
Thematically daring and aesthetically striking, Take Shelter avoids special effects gimmicks, focuses on a dread quietly spreading – the good days are ending – and parlays that sensation into an apocalyptic drama relying on the ambiguous mental state of its protagonist. The threat is never specified, but it doesn’t need to be: it pierces the heart of the most relatable, everyday anxieties we all experience, acknowledging free-floating fears over the price of gas and insurance co-pays. Much of the dazzle and darkness comes from Adam Stone’s cinematography, which expresses Curtis’ swirling state of mind with rich flavours of light.
It culminates with escalating crises and explosions, as Curtis goes off with all the pent-up fury of a magma-spewing volcano. Its breathtaking final 20 minutes unites its topics – angst, misreading the runes, embarking on actions that are fairly or unfairly mocked, taking wagers with and against history – and affirms that Take Shelter has turned the present-day unease into a powerful metaphor, heralding the right portentous trumpet call at the opportune moment. Deliberately paced and quietly spellbinding, it is a slow simmer of a film, a work of hushed and persuasive emotional veracity, a hallucinatory thriller anchored by a deeply resonant sense of trepidation.
Take Shelter is easy to admire, difficult to enjoy, and impossible to ignore. Everything we treasure in life could be lost in an instant. Whatever storm is coming, these two will face it together. Let’s pray that it doesn’t sweep us all away.