The story of a man afflicted with fearful visions, Take Shelter is a film that’s hitting the right apocalyptic trumpet call at the right time. Fresh from festivals at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, this modest, well-crafted sophomore work from Arkansas writer-director Jeff Nichols ( Shotgun Stories) resonates with the Doomsday economic and environmental scenarios and the fear-mongering hyperbole of the airwaves.
Take Shelter is also a showcase for one of America’s most gifted portrayers of obsession, Michael Shannon ( Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire), an actor whose features seems so carved in granite that every grimace feels potentially seismic. Here, he plays Curtis Laforche, an Ohio construction worker in his mid-30s, who’s treading water financially. He’s a gentle, clumsy father to his hearing-impaired six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is scheduled for cochlear-implant surgery. He’s also the breadwinner for his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who sells embroidery and knick-knacks at craft sales to save for their annual Myrtle Beach vacation.
“You got a good life,” says Curtis’s buddy Dewart (Shea Whigham) after a night at the bar. “That’s the best compliment you can give a man.”
Yet we already know that Curtis’s “good life” may be in trouble. In the film’s eerie prologue, we see him standing outside his home, staring at the ominous cloud formations while the wind whips through the trees. The storm is normal for the Ohio tornado belt, but the rain, thick and yellow, like motor oil, is born in Curtis’s nightmare. Through the film’s early scenes, there are more dreams and hallucinations of a violent storm and accompanying calamities. His dog attacks, his truck crashes, his daughter is torn away from his arms by faceless intruders.
Nichols risks overdoing the horror-movie shocks with their obvious CGI effects, but in time, the night terrors are recast as symptoms of another underlying condition. Curtis wakes to discover he has wet the bed. Another morning, he spits blood from biting the inside of his mouth. Without telling his wife, he sees a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist in the city. Instead, Curtis seeks out the free counsellor at his local clinic, but he’s worried. His mother (Kathy Baker) lives in an assisted-living centre, where she has been since her mental breakdown when she was about his age.
Meanwhile, Curtis’s fixation on the impending storm becomes consuming. In his mission to protect his family, he begins to expand a backyard storm shelter into a small underground fortress. He puts his job in peril, takes out a high-risk loan to buy construction materials, gas masks and canned food.
Writer-director Nichols and Shannon manage a rare thing here, in portraying the “double book-keeping” phenomenon of mental illness, where someone can simultaneously be in the grip of delusions while still functioning in the world. As Curtis’s condition progresses, Samantha emerges as the film’s grounding wire, keeping us connected to what’s emotionally real.
There’s a superb scene, which takes place in Curtis’s expanded shelter after a minor tornado, when the couple quarrel about who will open the door. The stakes are nothing less than his sanity and their future as a couple, in a marriage where fear has become a permanent guest. Nichols’s script never mentions politics. It touches upon churchgoing only in passing, and apart from the distractingly ambiguous final scene, stays rooted in domestic reality. However and whenever the big world ends, Curtis and Samantha’s small one has been knocked flat by his personal tempest.
- Directed and written by Jeff Nichols
- Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain
- Classification: 14A