Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter is not merely a gripping psychological thriller about whether a man is losing his grip on reality or his hallucinatory visions are omens. It is also a tragic portrait of that man's response to his affliction and his desire to protect his family, even if from himself. Jeff Nichols, whose debut, Shotgun Stories, displayed the clear influence of early David Gordon Green and William Faulkner, pushes deeper into that territory. He mixes naturalism with dark poetry, creating fractured views of people trying to overcome the conditioning of grim pasts and never truly succeeding.

Shotgun Stories also offered a breakthrough performance for its star, Michael Shannon, who consolidated 15 years' worth of character performances—typically as a man always on the tipping point of civility, even sanity—as the embittered son locked in a feud with his abdicated father's second family. The work Shannon does here makes that role look like a mere primer. Shannon, a character actor who has found himself in demand for a range of high-profile projects (see him now as a main cast member on Boardwalk Empire), found his first plateau with Nichols. Now he has reached the second. Even if the film around him were mediocre, Take Shelter would be worth the price of admission.

But Nichols upped his game as well. He sets his atmosphere from the opening shots, rustling wind cutting sinisterly through trees as Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) dreams of a fiendish storm carrying thick, yellow rain the consistency of "fresh motor oil." The visions only get worse from here, and Nichols mixes his ability for sustaining and building mood with more polished editing to blur the lines between nightmare and reality. The aesthetic matches the narrative; Curtis' imagined rainstorms drive people and animals mad and bloodthirsty, the attacks they perpetuate upon him in sleep leave psychic scars during the day. When he dreams of his dog mauling his arm, he feels the pain for a whole day. When a coworker turns on him in a nightmare, he can barely look at his lifelong friend.

Shannon's face, so drawn and flat but expressive, communicates a terror he tries desperately to bury for the sake of his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf and needs implant surgery miraculously covered by Curtis' health insurance. Shannon avoids the nervous tics and spiky energy one might expect of a man falling apart. Instead, he withdraws, coiling rather than springing. His eyes narrow with wariness and suspicion until it seems as if the very bones in his brow shuffle downward to slope over his sockets. Shannon bursts with nervousness and paranoia, but he proves all the more frightful and unpredictable by suppressing these feelings into slow, deliberate actions.

One of those actions is to reinforce the tornado shelter outside the family house, a decision Curtis settles upon with tacit firmness. Swatting away any question as to the sanity of his renovations in a time of penny-pinching hardship, Curtis sets about expanding the shelter and preparing so single-mindedly to protecting his family from the hellishness he believes is coming that he does not notice how his actions court ruin of a very different but no less affecting sort. When this realization breaks through the wall Shannon puts up around himself, the self-loathing and regret that plays out over his face is wrenching. Curtis is all too aware of his mother's past with mental illness, and the fact that he cannot overcome his fears with this knowledge only wracks him further.

Shannon's spellbinding, anguished but reserved performance eclipses all else, but he's not the only worthy player here. Chastain continues to impress as Curtis' wife, whose concern for her husband can only take so much, even as she constantly finds new wells of strength to stand by him through his ordeal. The strained but fierce bond between them forms a contrapuntal line for the ever-increasing grimness of the film, working in tandem but also in opposition to the overall tone.

Take Shelter does have its missteps, or at least its moments of less-than-perfection. The scene of Curtis reaching his breaking point with the whispers of others is a logical emotional climax but one that feels too showy after previously being so beautifully and disturbingly controlled. There's also the epilogue, which can only be justified, not lauded like the rest of the picture. Yet I confess I found it easy to justify, seeing in its left-field resolution of the film's ambiguity an unexpectedly hopeful angle of renewed filial trust and faith.

Still, I found the true conclusion to be the downright masterful sequence in the shelter during a real storm, prompting Curtis to simultaneously freak out and silently bask in having been "right." But when the storm passes, the question arises as to whether Curtis will accept that and let his family back into the surface world, leading to an agonizing couple of minutes that project Curtis' inner turmoil onto the audience in almost unbearable tension. That sequence elevates Nichols from a remarkably talented upstart to an emerging major player, and it more than proves Michael Shannon's own ascendancy to the top tier of contemporary American actors.


  1. YES! Awesome review, I'm just nodding in agreement the entire way. Michael Shannon is so captivating in his restraint, and I absolutely loved the editing and dream visuals- everything is just so well put-together. I hated Jessica Chastain in TREE OF LIFE so I was really happy to see her excellent performance here. Everything about this movie is good!

  2. I loved Chastain (and everything else) in TREE OF LIFE but felt this was the more narratively focused version of that same character (i.e. loving but suffering wife who can stand up for herself while still trying to help her man, for better or worse). I actually thought of Malick a lot during this film, since Nichols owes such a strong debt to David Gordon Green, who in turn owes Terry. Funnily enough, TAKE SHELTER kind of split the difference in tone for me between TOL and MELANCHOLIA, at once hopeful and tactile but also apocalyptic and despairing. So in love with this film.