The main deception of Jeff Nichols’ apocalyptic drama Take Shelter is that its plotline can be summed up so quickly and cleanly, though the film itself neither passes quickly nor lets anyone get away cleanly. And that’s meant as a compliment to the film (and Nichols and his entire cast and crew), one that mines a simple idea to its most fulfilling (and often unsettling) ends. The film stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, a family man who starts having disconcerting visions of nature gone mad (black rain falling from the sky, clouds that roll and swirl too swiftly, birds dropping dead at his feet), and responds in the only way that seems wise – he builds a souped-up fall-out shelter for his wife and daughter.
As the layers of Curtis steadily get peeled back, it becomes obvious that it’s not just this singular (and relatively new) fixation on the end of the world as we know it that’s driving the man, as Curtis’ creeping concerns that he’s actually going insane have a real world root. His mother is crazy, and in a basic, hard-and-fast way. And she has been since, well, since approximately the same age Curtis is now. The delusions and nightmares and visions and creeping paranoia would be enough to make anyone worry, but with a possible genetic predisposition to psychosis, it’s a wonder that Curtis hasn’t broken down sooner.
Nichols cleverly piles on everyday issues that make Curtis’ sickness not just an inconvenience or a cause for concern, but the beginning of a spiraling series of events that threaten the happiness and health of not just himself, but also his young daughter (who is deaf, from an apparently recent illness). It’s the film’s greatest irony that, in a wrong-headed attempt to protect his family from hazy possibilities, Curtis commits a series of mistakes that guarantee negative outcomes for all of them. Take Shelter may be most obviously and broadly about fear and paranoia and terror of modern existence, but all of that is run through with a desperately deep sadness.
Curtis is a different sort of role for Shannon, who has earned most of his recent accolades for playing supporting characters that are off-putting or unhinged in some way or another (look no further than his Oscar-nominated work in Revolutionary Road). Curtis is certainly the most relatable role that Shannon has played in awhile, which makes his crumble and collapse all that more striking to an audience. And, in the midst of all of Curtis’ confusion, Shannon turns in a performance that is best summed up in just one word – assured. Stunningly so, rivetingly so.
Jessica Chastain was already being hailed as the drama girl du jour back in January, when Take Shelter premiered at Sundance, but few people had yet to see her in a film (with all of her big releases hitting months after those first Sundance screenings). As Curtis’ wife Samantha, Chastain is tasked with calming her husband, alleviating worries and fears she doesn’t fully know about or completely comprehend. Chastain’s work in the beginning of Take Shelter seems quiet and small, but as Curtis’ mental and emotional states slowly break down, Chastain reveals her Samantha to be in possession of multitudes. The full range of her excellent work is most evident in the last third of the film, as Samantha comes to grips with the fact that her husband is experiencing something bigger than all of them, and that she must be the one to make sense of what that all means.
And Nichols has not just employed a capable cast for Take Shelter, he also wrangled together an equally as talented group to go behind the camera with him. The writer and director reteamed with his Mud cinematographer, Adam Stone, to cook up the strangely beautiful and alienating skyscapes and weather-based hallucinations that Curtis experiences throughout the film. Stone has also worked with composer David Wingo before, most notably on some of Nichols’ friend and NCSA classmate David Gordon Green’s earlier films (including George Washington, Undertow, and All the Real Girls), and their previous collaborations have obviously influenced how well their work comes together in this film. Special attention must also be paid to Nichols’ editor, Parke Gregg, as Take Shelter marks his feature debut as full-blown editor, and his work here is just as assured as Shannon’s.
While Take Shelter is about a man who can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not, Nichols doesn’t use that as a storytelling trick to create cheap scares or confusion for his audience. All of the cues are there for moviegoers to differentiate between what is “real” and what Curtis is experiencing – but it’s not just the honesty of this choice’s that interesting, it’s that it still doesn’t take away even one minute of tension or fear. Nightmares have the profound ability to be terrifying even as the person dreaming them begins to realize they may, in fact, not represent reality. Take Shelter accomplishes the very same – we may know that Curtis is dreaming or hallucinating, but his nightmares and delusions are nothing less than utterly captivating and consuming. Take Shelter is a bruiser of a movie, one of those rare films that can deliver gut-punches over and over, but ones that leave a mark, no matter if they’re rooted in the “real” or not.
Take Shelter is now in limited release.