“Take Shelter” is a beautiful and tender yet painful and unsettling drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s a near flawless exercise in enigmatic but measured filmmaking anchored by an unforgettable Oscar worthy performance from Michael Shannon. Nichols brings a haunting realism to his examination of mental illness and it’s because of our genuine relatability to his believable and organic characters that the journey is so heart-wrenching.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father who begins to experience disturbing dreams and hallucinations. His dreams always start with an approaching storm and as he teeters on the edge of insanity, the storm becomes more and more of a reality to him. Curtis is different than so many of these characters we have seen before. He’s not an bad man. While he does struggle to keep his grasp on reality, he also recognizes it and takes several sensible measures to curb it. He genuinely loves his family and his greatest fear is that the same mental illness that effected his mother will effect him and those closest to him. As the storm from his dreams melds more into Curtis’ reality, he begins working on an old tornado shelter in the backyard. It’s this project that brings his troubles to the surface and it’s the family he desperately hopes to protect that may pay the ultimate price.
Shannon is simply brilliant in this film. There was no other performance that year that grabbed me and moved me the way he did in “Take Shelter”. There are so many elements to his character and Shannon sells them all. In some scenes you hurt with him as he fights the coming storm. Other times you can’t help but fear him as he loses ground in the war for his sanity. The entire film hinges on Curtis’ character and without Shannon’s captivating work the movie would have flat-lined.
Jessica Chastain beautifully portrays Curtis’ wife Samantha. She’s given much more to do here than in her earlier film “The Tree of Life” but she’s just as mesmerizing. Samantha is a loyal and devoted wife and mother. She’s a woman of faith with an unwavering love for her husband even as things get more complicated. In many ways she is the more sympathetic character in the film. Not only is she the gentle voice of reason, but she must deal with the changes in her husband while taking care of their hearing impaired daughter. She truly is a remarkable woman and Chastain is magnetic in every scene she is in. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and subtle performance.
“Take Shelter” moves at a very deliberate pace, slowly developing the story but never getting weighted down by the subject matter. The main characters are so well written and their unfolding relationship keeps things grounded while also raising the stakes. Nichols also does a fantastic job capturing the details and nuances of small town middle America. It’s little things like embroidered pillows and Lion’s Club luncheons that stand out for those like me who are familiar with this part of the country.
My one problem with “Take Shelter” is its vague and ambiguous ending. Sure it leaves things open for all sorts of interpretations but I’m not sure that’s the best approach for this type of story. I can think of a couple of places close to the end that would have made for a stronger and more moving finish if only Nichols could put down his pen. It’s not that it’s a terrible conclusion to an otherwise great film, but it’s confusing and I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what took place.
“Take Shelter” paints an intriguing picture of an embattled man losing a war within himself. It presents such an authentic family dynamic that makes the consequences of Curtis’ potential fall so much more devastating. It can sometimes be a difficult film to watch but it’s thoroughly rewarding. Shannon and Chastain both deserved Oscar nominations for their work in what is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.