Film review: “Take Shelter”

November 25, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Curtis LaForche is having bad dreams.

"Take Shelter"

Really bad dreams – the kind where approaching storms of apocalypse threaten to destroy everything in their wake. Where birds wheel through the sky in ominous portent, and shadowy strangers come in the night to steal his child.

As portrayed by the powerful actor Michael Shannon in director Jeff Nichols’ superior thriller, Curtis is an anguished man caught in a terrifying downward spiral. His visions are so real to him that he digs an underground storm shelter in the yard, hoping to protect his increasingly concerned wife (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf little girl (Tova Stewart) from the coming cataclysm.

But Curtis is also facing another terrifying possibility: His mother (Kathy Baker) was swept away by schizophrenia at around the same age Curtis is now. Disturbing daytime incidents at work – he’s a crew chief for a construction outfit – have Curtis doubting his own faculties. Are the dreams just rumblings of a different kind of approaching storm? Is the real danger to the family actually Curtis himself?

Director Nichols displays some masterful storytelling techniques in “Take Shelter,” which swims in ambiguity and dread to the very end. Like Curtis, we’re not sure what’s really happening either. Scenes are structured to keep us squarely behind the eyes of Curtis, and increasingly off-balance. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once instructed, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

“Take Shelter” operates on several levels, harmonically. The straightforward thriller elements – eerie visuals, sudden scares, an uneasy musical score – provide a visceral edge to the family’s emotional anxiety. Those fears are, in turn, enhanced by quasi-paranormal elements that suggest Curtis’ dilemma may be part of a larger and much, much scarier picture.

On still another level, the film has a deliberate resonance with the current cultural climate in which utter catastrophe (ecological, political, economic – take your pick) seems right around the corner.

A film this layered needs performers up to the task. Good thing it has two of the best actors working today in the lead roles. With his heavy brow and stooped gait, Michael Shannon has no trouble conveying Curtis’ pain – he seems to be literally carrying the weight of the world. But the actor also reveals Curtis’ essential decency and gentleness as he labors to protect his vulnerable family.

It’s an amazing performance. I couldn’t take my eyes off Shannon, which is really saying something considering that he shares several scenes with the equally formidable Jessica Chastain. She takes what could have been a bystander role, and delivers a performance of burning clarity.

“Take Shelter” ends on a strange note indeed, and there’s no way to discuss it without revealing too much. But bear in mind, if you see the film, that “Take Shelter” is broadcasting on multiple frequencies, as it were. Also, remember what Obi-wan said.

Take Shelter
Grade: A
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Ray McKinnon
Length: 2 hours
Rated R for language and thematic material


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