Sometimes movies need to be quiet in order to be heard. Take Shelter is such a movie, favoring eerie scenes to epic explosions and quiet revelations to glaring conclusions. This Hitchcock-esque film will have you on the edge of your seat and lost in dreams of pre-apocalyptic proportions without having to bribe you with CGI and 3D gimmicks. This is one quiet thriller you don’t want to miss.
Noah’s story wasn’t just about building an ark or loading the animals in by twos. He was firstly a man given visions of impending doom and how to save himself and his family. Even in those times he was mocked, shunned, threatened, and seen as a lunatic. Take Shelter is a modern spin on that classic story, without forcing it’s viewers into a religious or non-religious corner.
Curtis LeForche (Michale Shannon) is an everyman who lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their six-year-old deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Their problems mirror those that many people in our economy have: jobs, money, bills, medical insurance. One problem Curtis has that the rest of us don’t is the repeating nightmares of a nearing apocalypse. These visions warn him against friends, family, mega-storms, and even the family dog. He keeps these dreams and visions to himself, channeling his growing anxiety into the re-vamping of an old storm shelter in his backyard. As the people he’s close to begin seeing a change in him, they worry that he may be loosing his grip on sanity. He secretly seeks help, being concerned with his symptoms since it may run in his family. Writer-director Jeff Nichols inspires deep compassion for this man who’s either losing his mind or prescient, or possibly both.
What does Curtis see? Is he crazy? Is he truly seeing the future? Can anyone else see those peculiar formations of birds, or the wild cracks and growls of thunder? The chilling beauty of Take Shelter is not that the threat is never specified, but that it doesn’t need to be. It’s not just the visions of an apocalypse that threaten our characters, but all the everyday problems that seem to stack up against them. Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone make affective use of widescreen views, adding vast flat lands and bleak lower-middle class housing as their backdrop. This atmosphere adds a depth to the free-floating atmosphere, giving it roots in the here and now, using the environment to weave economic pressure and problems into the growing tension.
Michael Shannon has played his share of unhinged characters from movies like Bug, The Runaways, Revolutionary Road, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. He’s finally able to show a much greater range in Take Shelter, portraying Curtis with plainspoken decency, and pulling off his modesty and get-it-done attitude to a tee. You can almost smell the hard earned sweat on his work shirt. As the tension grows and the demons press in, Shannon lets the terror build in slow increments. His face gradually hardens and his eyes get ever so much wilder as the anxiety mounts. Chastain is just as amazing in her role as Samantha. She’s had quite the line-up this year with films like The Tree of Life, The Debt, and The Help, but I must say this is her most convincing role yet. She gives Samantha a beautiful mix of determination and gentleness that will bring you to tears. This dynamic duo’s chemistry and believability set the bar high for Oscars this season.
Take Shelter is more than a psychological thriller, it’s a reflecting pool on society. It shows us our fears, our troubles. An interesting note is that while Samantha and her family are Christian, Curtis doesn’t go to church with them. Nichols never says what Curtis’ religious preference is (if any), but he’s the one getting the visions. Even so, when he enlightens his wife about what is happening to him, her reaction falls in line with what the rest of society thinks: that he’s crazy. Nichols pops that mirror up in front of us, showing us how cynical and skeptic we all have become of visions, divine intervention, prophets and such. He goes on to show us mirrors of our everyday troubles, our private thoughts and fears, and our personal struggles with society. While it lingers on the long side with a 2 hour runtime, the scenes are all so immersive that the length never feels unnecessary, and the story and character arcs are not to be dismissed. This fantastic thriller shows us masterful filmmaking at it’s best.
I give Take Shelter 5 “Story Arks” out of 5.