Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is quiet…too quiet. It’s the kind of quiet that makes your collar shrink, the kind that makes you long for something, anything, even an apocalyptic event of global damnation to finally just happen. And believe it or not, that’s a compliment.
Take Shelter is part meditation on the mentally taxing responsibilities of a modern family man, complete with frustration about medical co-pays, and part “Twilight Zone” nightmare. With a furiously stoic performance from Michael Shannon acting as a keystone, Nichols’ film bridges the gap between pure character drama and light science fiction. The result is a delightfully disquieting, quiet experience that is all too rare to find
Shannon plays Curtis, who seems to be a swell, albeit incredibly subdued, fella. When he’s not laboring as a construction worker, he’s knocking back beers with buddies or having family dinner with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain). But stuff’s gotten tough for ole Curt lately. His young daughter (Tova Stewart) has been diagnosed as deaf, necessitating extensive sign language classes and money for an expensive cochlear implant procedure. Thankfully, Curtis has great insurance…so as long as nothing bizarre happens and he gets fired, things should be fine.
But Curtis begins having nightmares. And not “I gave a presentation nude” nightmares, but bed-wetting, seizure-inducing hallucinations that involve an unholy storm, one where the sky drops down thick, brown rain that apparently turns all living things into zombie-like killers. Oddly enough, the apocalypse is still not Curtis’ biggest fear. Having been abandoned by a schizophrenic mother, his biggest concern is going as mad as she did.
As he bravely speaks with doctors and counselors, he can’t seem to resist the siren call of apocalyptic fantasy forever. He soon sinks copious amounts of money and time into creating a storm shelter, complete with gas masks. The remainder of the film is a juggling act between a man desperately clinging to sanity, a wife desperately trying to help her daughter and a family threatening to explode.
As haunting as the film looks, complete with simple yet terrifying storm clouds, the acting is what’s on display here. Shannon’s ability to subtly seethe beneath the surface is contrasted beautifully with Chastain’s loving explicit resolve. Deservedly, much praise will be focused on Shannon’s performance, but in many ways, it is Chastain’s dynamic counterpoint that allows his character to become so exposed. For the bulk of the film, the stakes aren’t global armageddon, but whether this wholly believable couple can weather this personal storm.
There’s a way of reading Take Shelter that’s different, taking biblical cues from the story of Noah and plot points from Rod Serling. It works well on that level, but functions best as a drama about a tortured man who can’t decide if he needs to save his family from the world or from himself. Detractors will likely gripe about the deliberate pace and ambiguity in the story, which are the very same things that make it such a triumph. In a time when everyone seems to think thrillers must be as loud and grating as a yapping lapdog, Take Shelter once more proves otherwise.
Grade = A-