Fantastic Fest Review: Jeff Nichols' 'Take Shelter' with Michael Shannon
by Jeremy Kirk
September 26, 2011
Take Shelter is the scariest film of the year. Don't let that statement mislead you, though. While most are being terrified by ghosts or natural occurrences like global epidemics, Take Shelter hits your scare senses two-fold. At first a riveting story about the possible end of the world, it also examines how one person can believe they are losing their mind and the lengths with which they'll go to prove to themselves that they are completely sane. Aided by a best-of-the-year performance from Michael Shannon, Take Shelter grips you from the beginning and slowly jostles in your brain, unnerving you with its imagery and tonal beauty even days after watching it.
Shannon plays Curtis, a family man who is trying to do right by his wife, played by Jessica Chastain, and deaf daughter, played by Tova Stewart. Curtis begins having visions of a storm, one that spews yellow rain and builds into funnel clouds that rip across the Ohio landscape where the family lives. But not only that, the rain in Curtis' visions have a horrific effect on the people it catches. As the visions begin to build like the storm itself in Curtis' mind, he begins building a storm shelter behind his house, creating a place for he and his family to go when the end comes, but his actions begin to have crippling effects of their own on the people who love him.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (of Shotgun Stories), Take Shelter moves like a hurricane, slow but methodical. Even though the visions Curtis has are epic in scale, they are, in fact, all in his head. What the film is really about is how he reacts to them and the consequences his actions have on not only his family but his job and the community around them. The visions are pieced together with all the grandeur and skill of a Hollywood blockbuster. But that wouldn't be enough if Take Shelter were put together by someone like, say, Roland Emmerich. Nichols doesn't show you the big picture, never pulls out to a massively wide shot of the area. Instead, we focus on Curtis, where he is in the storm of his mind, and what actions occur to him directly in that.
The character spends much of the film being cryptic, holding in his visions from his wife for fear that the demons of his mother's own mentality haven't been passed onto him. This is where Take Shelter finds its biggest issue, why this man wouldn't just come right out and tell his loving wife what is happening to him. However, Nichols handles this aspect carefully, giving the character a very powerful reason why he isn't revealing what is happening to him to anyone close to him. Curtis can't live with the thought that he might be losing his sanity, can't even think of dealing with what that might to do those he loves and wants to protect, but even more than that Curtis doesn't want to accept it for himself. The terror that comes from someone believing they are losing their sense of reality must be astronomical, and Nichols creates Curtis in such a way to pass this sensibility on to his audience.
This is where Shannon's performance comes into play. As gripping as the story he's helping to tell, Shannon must play Curtis subdued, only able to lash out with any notion of gusto in the action-heavy vision sequences or even those moments when Curtis awakens from a nightmare, unable to catch his breath. But as powerful as Shannon is with the more subdued Curtis, it holds no candle to the enormity of the power on display when Curtis reaches his end with the community. In one particular scene, Curtis, confronting a number of friends and acquaintances screams, "Listen up!" and you know anything Shannon is about to say in the next few minutes is going to be strong beyond words. Michael Shannon, always a solid choice for any role, takes the lead in Take Shelter and give his greatest turn to date, one that is going to be extremely difficult to top as the best of the year.
But Chastain must be mentioned, as well. As Samantha, a wife who loves her husband without question, she allows the audience sympathy but also hits us square in the chest with the strength she conveys when needed. Samantha is a woman who would do anything for her husband, but only until it takes an effect on their daughter. Chastain leaves us breathless in the poignant moments where she has to stand up to Curtis, and she does so without effort.
Every element in Take Shelter lashes itself to each other to create what can only be described as a work of beautiful terror, a film that will have you weeping one moment and cringing in the sheer terror of what might be happening in the next. The thought of the world ending is just as terrifying as the fear one has when they believe the world is not what they think, when you lose your grip on who you think you are or even what you think this world around you can be. Take Shelter is a true work of brilliance, and the imagery and ideas that seep into your brain like rain soaking into the ground make it one of the best films not only of Fantastic Fest, but of 2011 as well.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 10 out of 10