Few films are as successful at placing the audience inside the heads of their protagonists as Take Shelter, the second feature from Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories). That’s especially impressive since the character in question is Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a man who finds himself plagued by terrifying visions of an apocalyptic storm which may be a sign that he is going mad, or that he is a prophet. In short, his head isn’t the sort of place that you really want to be in, but Nichols and Shannon put you there from minute one and don’t let you out until the credits roll.
The film starts relatively slowly, showing how Curtis fits into his Midwestern community and the happy family life he shares with his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter, as well as the job he has at a local drilling firm. Sprinkled in amongst these are the dreams that trouble him, all of which start with a ominous storm that rains a thick, oily substance down on Curtis. The dreams start off eerie rather than scary, but gradually become more and more harrowing as the film progresses, eventually reaching a point where people in Curtis’ life appear in them and attack him. Owing to their intensity, Curtis starts to act differently towards the people who ‘hurt’ him, and he starts a downward spiral that threatens everyone he loves.
The dreams are incredibly effective and disorientating in the moment, but what’s really great about them is the way they make the ordinary moments that follow them seem subtly off. Much like Curtis, the audience is unsettled by these dreams and what they represent, and the way that they bleed into Curtis’ waking life, first as a feeling of unspecified dread, then as actual hallucinations, is superbly executed.
What really gives the film its emotional power is Michael Shannon’s central performance, which is just the latest highlight in a career full of them. He gives Curtis a sense of self-awareness about his predicament that prevents him from being just a standard cinematic loon. It is established early on that Curtis’ mother is in an assisted living facility as the direct result of a battle with paranoid schizophrenia that caused her to leave Curtis when he was only ten, and Curtis knows that the visions he is having could be a sign that he is succumbing to the same illness. At the same time that he is seeking professional help and trying to hold everything together so he doesn’t abandon his own child, he can’t help himself from being guided by his visions, which cause him to endanger his family by spending their money on a storm shelter to protect them from a disaster that may never come. Shannon’s performances is sudbued for the most part, and he only lets Curtis’ desperation show occasionally, but those little peeks, coupled with Curtis’ desire to save himself, lend a tragic air to the film. Curtis appears to be a man fighting a losing battle, and we are there with him every step of the way.
Take Shelter is truly breathtaking, and is one of the most distinct and captivating American films of the last decade. A true benchmark of what independent cinema can do, and further proof that both Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon are two of the most talented people working in American cinema today. We can only hope that they make many more similarly brilliant, daring films together.
Review by Edwin Davies