Take Shelter (2012)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Take Shelter first pinged on my radar when I heard about this strange, contemplative maybe-apocalyptic movie featuring a guy who had visions about the end of the world. I was immediately intrigued. When I heard that Michael Shannon of Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road fame was going to be the lead, I knew I had to see it. How could I not want to watch a movie that seemed targeted directly to me?
The movie isn’t quite what you get from the marketing, though. It’s a lot better than that. Shannon stars as Curtis, a man who has a great job, a loving wife and a deaf daughter who’s managing her disability considerably well. He works outdoors with his best friend, and together with the money made from his wife’s crafts they’re planning to put a deposit down on a beach house. With Curtis’ insurance, his daughter will have a cochlear implant fully covered.
Despite his great life, Curtis is plagued with dreams. Unnatural storms well up on the horizon, a thick, dark rain falls, and people caught out in it go crazy. They get more and more intense until they start to affect him in the real world; when he dreams about people going insane, he becomes too afraid to interact with them. His life is slowly but steadily invaded by the feeling that something terrible is coming, and he’s the only one to see it. In the quiet way expected of the American male, he bears this burden and starts to prepare for it as best he can. Those preparations come across as more and more severe to the people around him, and just like that his life begins to unravel.
What’s fascinating about this story, and about Curtis specifically, is that there’s no doubt in his mind that he might be crazy. While he’s preparing his storm shelter he’s also going to the doctor about his dreams and the possibility that his mother’s schizophrenia is beginning to manifest in him. He’s plagued by the idea that he could be wrong about all of this, that his brain can’t be trusted. But his dreams — and eventually, his hallucinations — feel so real that he can’t help but take action. Everything that Curtis does comes from a place of deep love, even when he makes choices that make his situation more and more unmanageable.
Jessica Chastain provides a wonderful counter-balance to Shannon’s stoic weakness. She’s open and talkative, but she possesses a strength under that welcoming exterior that pulls their marriage through Curtis’ ordeal. The more I think about the character of Samantha and the way Chastain imbues her with vulnerability, weariness and a spine of steel, the more impressed I am with her performance. You really feel for her as she struggles with the secret that Curtis is hiding, and then you watch in amazement as she pushes him into helping himself, to avoid making the mistakes of his mother.
The film itself is imbued with a quiet tension and a strong, pervasive mood. You’re not worried about Curtis’ visions, but the effect they have on him and everyone around him. Director/writer Mike Nichols does such a great job of slowly deconstructing Curtis’ life, and you genuinely feel for him (and Samantha) as the losses pile up. Watching someone succumbing to mental illness is a painful experience, but you never feel like the situation is hopeless. Curtis is smart enough and Samantha is strong enough, and you keep waiting for them to get together and pull it out.
I won’t talk about the ending for a number of reasons, but I will say this: I think it’s meant to be taken literally, and it doesn’t diminish Curtis’ journey at all. It’s cryptic, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.
Nichols directs the movie with deliberate pacing, which is a critic’s phrase for saying that the movie moves fairly slowly. However, if the mood stays tight and the actors are good enough, that can be a feature and not a bug. It works here. Shannon’s deadpan performance has room to work here, so you can study the smallest changes in his expression. When Curtis speaks, you know just how difficult it is for him to open up. Your heart goes out to him.
Take Shelter is a very good film. It has a lot on its mind, from studying how schizophrenia is its own nightmare to how difficult it is to be the loved one of someone with mental challenges. It talks about the dread we all face in our everyday lives, of immense forces beyond our control changing the world in ways we can’t anticipate. And it talks about the most basic way to deal with that, how a strong bond between two fragile people can sometimes be enough.