Take Shelter (2011)

22 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Take Shelter” brings about a subject that is one of the main envelopments of mankind—fear. Everyone is afraid of something, and how we deal with that fear is up to us. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is essentially about a man who deals with his fears while not completely understanding them.

The man’s name is Curtis (Michael Shannon). He’s a working-class man in his mid-30s with a loving wife named Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and an adorable little daughter named Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. Curtis has a nightmare about a strange thunderstorm that oddly rains what looks like motor oil. He dismisses it as just a strange dream, but the next night, it’s even stranger when he dreams of the same storm and the family dog attacks him. But while the dog only bites him in the dream, Curtis can still feel the pain when he wakes up.

The nightmares get worse and more vivid. Curtis dreams of the same storm with the strange rain that apparently causes people to act crazily and violently. But during his day job as a sand miner, he has hallucinations of a similar theme—he’s the only one who notices that the birds in town are acting strangely. He soon starts to believe (and fear) that the dreams are not only dreams, but also visions of an impending disaster. So he gets the idea of rebuilding the old tornado shelter in his backyard and reconstructing it into a safe haven for him and his family if the visions are indeed accurate.

But there’s a problem here—Curtis is dealing with his fear in this way while also fearing something that runs even deeper. You see, his family has a history of mental illness—his mother (Kathy Baker) has been confined to a home since Curtis was ten years old. Is Curtis slowly but surely going crazy? Are these visions signs of possible schizophrenia? It’s unclear, but while Curtis goes to see several doctors and counselors about his dreams, he’s still working on that shelter to be ready in case he isn’t crazy. How’s everyone else with his “home improvement project?” Samantha is concerned, but will stick with him through thick and thin like the loving wife she is. Curtis’ work buddy Dewart (Shea Wiggum) helps him a couple times, though it means borrowing a few things from work.

What’s really happening here? Curtis doesn’t know, and a great thing about “Take Shelter” is that I didn’t know either. I’m watching this man as he deals with his fears in these ways. Is he going mad? Is there something dangerous headed our way? Is Curtis protecting his family from an impending storm or himself?

“Take Shelter” is a piece of masterful filmmaking. Jeff Nichols, whose previous outing as a writer/director was the excellent indie film “Shotgun Stories” (which also starred Michael Shannon), creates this story with a real intelligence for its audience. For example, the dream sequences—anyone in the audience can tell that a certain scene is one of Curtis’ nightmares. And I hate those old, cheap payoffs in which the dreamer wakes up in a cold sweat. But the thing is, there’s always a small feeling that these aren’t just dreams. With the way the story is developing, it’s hard to tell whether or not what we just saw will relate to anything else in a later scene or not. That’s another great thing about “Take Shelter”—its lack of predictability. The story is told in a way that any of the two possibilities could be real, and it keeps us guessing. And then when the film hit the climactic moment in the final moment, I had chills. I couldn’t tell what was going to happen. I won’t dare give away what will happen, but either way you’d expect it go down, it’d be hard to deny that the final product has a great sense of dramatic tension.

Also, there’s the excellent cinematography (by Adam Stone) from the open skies to Curtis and Samantha’s bedroom to inside the shelter, while the special effects blend in credibly. There’s a sense of atmosphere here.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain deserved Oscar nominations for their work (and unfortunately, the whole film was snubbed). Shannon—one of the perhaps odd but most reliable character actors working today—delivers a powerhouse performance, showing emotional fragmentation, and Chastain is excellent as the reactor to Curtis’ problems and deeds.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m making “Take Shelter” sound like the great movie that I sincerely think it is. Let me put it this way—I wrote in an above paragraph that I thought Nichols’ earlier film “Shotgun Stories” was excellent, and I think that his follow-up “Take Shelter” is even better. If that’s not enough, let me put it this way—I think this is the best film I’ve seen in 2011. It’s inspired, unpredictable, chilling, wonderfully-acted, well-executed, and intriguing.

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