Jeff Nichols’ second feature film, Take Shelter, which he both wrote and directed, is close to a masterpiece. With a deeply resonating sense of unease that encompasses its entirety, this slow-burning thriller follows the plaguing effects that a series of apocalyptic dreams have on a young husband and father. It dwells on the effects it has on his family’s quality of life and how they manage to endure the terrifying trauma. Take Shelter was selected to screen in Critics Week at Cannes, where it took out the Jury Prize.
Curtis LaForce (Michael Shannon) lives in a small town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing-impaired daughter Hannah. Curtis makes a modest living as a crew chief for a sand-mining company while Samantha works as a part-time seamstress supplementing their income by selling home-made wares at a flea market on the weekend. Money is tight, and managing Hannah’s healthcare and special needs education is tough. The benefits of Curtis’ professional health insurance ensure they can afford Hannah’s cochlear implant. While Curtis’ is the loving family man and devoted husband, he is also quietly suffering from a series of vivid, terrifying, nightmarish dreams of an approaching apocalyptic storm.
Are these delusional nightmares indicative of his ailing psychological health and descent into paranoid schizophrenia or true premonitions of a pending apocalypse? The dreams always start the same way; thick viscous rain falls from the black-cloud riddled sky, thunder rumbles and lightning strikes the landscape. The dreams then transform into a number of horrific circumstances; the family dog attacks Curtis, his daughter is abducted by mysterious figures, and the furniture in his house levitates in the air. He always wakes up in a state of pain or paranoia, with the effects of the dreams deftly blended into Curtis’ daily life. He channels his apocalyptic anxieties by building a storm shelter in their backyard, taking out a risky loan and illegally using equipment from work to build it. He stockpiles tinned food and buys gas masks for his family in preparation. His mysterious behavior alienates him from co-workers and neighbors and gravely concerns Stephanie, placing tension on their marriage. To Curtis, none of these weigh as heavily on his conscience as the private fear of what his dreams may signify.
With a sense of measured ambiguity and calculated mystery, Nichols really nails the ominous mood and has expertly built a film centered around the emotions of dread and anxiety. Humans are obsessed with their own oblivion. Films portray it all the time. While there are evident similarities between Take Shelter and The Happening or 2012, this effortlessly surpasses those bigger budget films because Curtis’ fears double as those experienced by contemporary society, not necessarily about a pending ecological disaster, but also about falling victim to an uncertain economy. Take Shelter really delves into the pressures of raising a family, the threat of unemployment as part of the recession, and the necessity of retaining good health insurance. Curtis’ irrational spending as a result of his paranoia, places their formerly happy lives, both psychologically and financially, in jeopardy.
What keeps this brooding, ominous, slow-burning thriller from being perfect is the glacial paced second act, which eliminates the presence of the dreams, and focuses more on Curtis’ strange behaviors, the effects it has on his family and neighbors, and his psychotherapy. While I could blame my wavering interest on a big day prior to the screening, I think a few of these scenes were a little drawn out. Just as we think the medication is taking effect and the premonitory anxieties are over, we are pulled back in to a stunningly ambiguous climax. It is this brief period that threatens to lose the audience, but it is the strength of the performances, and Nichols’ controlled direction, which ensure it is captivating enough to pull through.
The exceptional Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichols’ debut feature film Shotgun Stories, has recently become known in the mainstream, following a small role in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a scene-stealing performance in Revolutionary Road (where he was nominated for an Oscar) and work amongst the outstanding ensemble of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. An often intense, awkward and unhinged performer, his empowering presence is effective in portraying this anxious everyday man weakened by inner demons, watching his masculinity threatened and himself psychologically unwind.
While compelled to act out of fear of his vivid premonitions, he is simultaneously aware that he might be experiencing the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia his mother (Kathy Baker) was similarly diagnosed with in her 30′s. He effortlessly balances his fears for his personal health and sanity with the lives of his family, questioning whether he should shelter them from the coming storm, or from himself. Jessica Chastain, whose beautiful presence was memorable amidst the spectacle of Tree of Life, is also outstanding. Committed to her husband, the love she retains for him is convincing, despite watching him transform into someone she doesn’t know.
Take Shelter is a very impressive achievement and one of the films that has lingered with me the most following the screening. The build-up is genuinely creepy, and apart from a short period that feels a little bit laborious, it is near perfection. Shannon and Chastain are outstanding (and Oscar nom worthy), the ending is killer, and it addresses some very real contemporary fears. It should find itself amongst serious Oscar consideration.