It’s a scary thing to lose your sanity. Once you begin to question your grip on reality and the lines between dreams and the waking world begin to blur, the foundations on which you’ve built the rest of your life will begin to crumble and everything is put up for grabs.
Jeff Nichols’ outstanding drama Take Shelter masterfully explores what it means to be plagued by uncertainty. Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a Hank Hill-type simple workingman. He has a loving wife (Jessica Chastain in the latest of a string of stellar roles this year), an adorable deaf daughter and even a loyal dog. Things quickly go south in Curtis’ life, though, when he begins to experience apocalyptic visions featuring colossal storms and violent lunatics. These dreams are incredibly lifelike — the pain he experiences in his unconsciousness lingers long into the next day upon waking. Worse, though, the dreams begin to seep out into his waking world. He is stricken by hallucinations and visions — all pushing him to begin building a storm shelter.
As Curtis becomes more and more obsessed with securing protection for his family from the coming storm he envisions, he becomes more and more fearful. His mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her mid ‘30s and Curtis fears he is headed down the same path. Or, perhaps more terrible, what if the visions are true? What if something terrible is coming and he is not yet prepared when it arrives?
Take Shelter features a slow, deliberate build where the audience is eased along Curtis’ own growing apprehension. This isn’t a big, flashy movie where Nic Cage has a terrible haircut and saves humanity from a dystopian future by predicting the future. This is a movie clearly influenced by the works fo Rod Serling — where story and performance were key and special effects took a backseat to genuine suspense.
Shannon, who has already established himself to be a very talented actor, really ratchets up his reputation with a remarkable performance. The pain and frustration in Shannon’s eyes as he grows more and more uncertain of his sanity and fearful of what the future holds is captivating. A man of few words, Curtis is not used to externalizing his pain and for the most part keeps it bottled up beneath the surface. It’s this character trait that gives Shannon full reign to fill his performance with such amazingly fine, detailed nuance. Curtis is a man living in perpetual fear and Shannon takes the character on a fully realized journey up to and through a confrontation of his worst nightmares.
As the dreams and visions ratchet up in intensity, it becomes harder and harder for Curtis to brush them off. When he dreams of his dog savagely attacking him, he is no longer able to trust his pet — casting a fearful eye at the pooch as his daughter plays with him. When his visions paint a landscape filled with tornadoes, Curtis breaks out in violent, asthmatic gasps at the sound of thunder. These fluctuations in behavior and increasing instability begin to fracture Curtis’ relationship with his family.
Just as Curtis is no longer able to trust his dog, Samantha, Curtis’ wife, finds it increasingly difficult to trust her husband. He risks the family’s financial future to carry out his dream of building storm shelter and his restless nights leave him violent and ill tempered. Chastain’s role is not as flashy as Shannon’s but it is imperative to the film’s structure. Just as Curtis is plagued by uncertainty of his sanity, Samantha is plagued with uncertainty about her family’s future. Together, the two push the film forward through the sheer force of their own performances — taking audiences along an empathetic ride through one family’s own personal apocalypse.
Take Shelter is not a horror film but it is a terrifying one. The film is powerful in its emotional journey and its resolution will leave a pit in your stomach you will be unable to shake for hours. The cast of Take Shelter does such an outstanding job selling the story and the character’s increasing fear and uncertainty that the film never once overstays its welcome despite its slow boil approach to storytelling. Take Shelter may be a slow film but it is never a boring one.
Director: Jeff Nichols Notable Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham Writer:Jeff Nichols
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.