Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Plot: A man has a series of apocalyptic visions, but wonders whether he should shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.
Mental illness in films is generally done without any ambiguity at all. Shine, A Beautiful Mind, American Psycho and The Shining all portrayed its protagonists as being clearly suffering from delusions of some kind or displaying the classic symptoms of what is popularly called ‘insanity’. Where Take Shelter differs, is in keeping its audience guessing as to whether or not the central character is in the early throes of paranoid schizophrenia or is actually having premonitions of a fierce storm that will have dire consequences for anyone living in its path.
Curtis LaForche (Shannon) lives with his wife Samantha (Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) in Elyria, Ohio. He starts to have disturbing and vivid dreams about a storm, during which he is harmed either by the family dog or those close to him. The storm itself always takes the shape of a ferocious-looking black cloud that precipitates motor oil. Believing that his family is in danger, Curtis decides to fortify their storm shelter in the backyard, but at the same time, his behaviour starts to alienate his family. He visits a counsellor at a free clinic and reveals that his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her 30s, around the same age that Curtis is himself now. He enlists the help of his work colleague Dewart (Whigham), borrows some equipment to dig the space big enough to fit a ship container that he has bought and gets a home improvement loan, all without telling Samantha, who is very unhappy when she eventually finds out.
Curtis visits a doctor who prescribes him a sedative to help him sleep, but when he slightly overdoses and suffer a seizure in front of Samantha, he has to tell her everything that has been going on. As Hannah undergoes treatment which demands that Curtis takes an increasing amount of time off work, his boss Russell (Ross Kennard) comes round to the house and fires him and gives Dewart two weeks’ unpaid leave after also learning that he borrowed the equipment without insurance. Curtis buys gas masks for his family and manages to finish the shelter, which has electricity and running water. He and Samantha have an argument over his unemployment, but she decides to stay but makes him promise to see a proper psychiatrist and for both of them to find new jobs. They go to a community gathering where Curtis has a run-in with former friend Dewart and they fight. Curtis shouts at everyone, warning them that a storm is coming and they are all hopelessly prepared. He and Samantha go home but are awoken in the middle of the night by the tornado siren – they take Hannah into the shelter and wait for the storm to pass, but will Curtis’ nightmares come true?
One word that springs to mind when describing Take Shelter is: intense. The tension is built up very slowly, with only the odd scene (including the dream sequences), only partially breaking the mood of quiet fear and dread with a bang, before quickly starting up again. Movies about apocalyptic thunderstorms usually feature the protagonists literally in the eye of the tempest, battling to stay alive against the odds, as in The Perfect Storm. Here we have both a literal and metaphorical storm brewing set in a sleepy Ohio town where the most excitement comes from the tornadoes that hit the region during certain months of the year. Apart from the odd bit of CGI to portray thunder and lightning, the onus is on the characters to really carry the story through. Curtis’ initial demeanour is as an ordinary man, going to work every day and taking care of his family. Once the dreams start however, his descent into obsession with building the shelter becomes a one-man mission – what strikes you is that he doesn’t ask the wider community for help (the usual weepie stereotype) – instead he goes largely alone, thus raising suspicions that he is actually going insane.
Michael Shannon’s performance is the one big plus point of the entire film. His Curtis is not really that likeable, yet you feel sympathy as he struggles to come to terms with his plight as a modern-day Noah. As he switches from trying to make sense of his dreams and becoming enveloped in protecting his family from a possible cataclysmic event to working out whether he has inherited his mother’s schizophrenia is something that few actors would have been able to accomplish. Jessica Chastain who seems to be in everything these days, once again builds on her reputation as a consummate performer although it would be interesting to see her in a lead role rather as a supporting actress, just to see what she can really do. Director Jeff Nichols, who is a relative newcomer, seems comfortable both with the talkie scenes and those of the nightmares which have elements of the horror genre rather than drama about them. Adam Stone’s cinematography is excellent, conveying the flat Ohio landscape as a hostile battlefield for any tornado to enjoy a spin upon.
Take Shelter holds its cards close to its chest, not allowing us to really know what is going to happen until the final reel. The acting is superb, as is the direction but the plot doesn’t quite move along as it should and the running time is therefore a touch too long, losing some of its impact. If you watch this for no other reason though, make sure it is for Shannon and Chastain’s performances.