Take Shelter Review
The expansive Ohio backdrop is so heavily featured in Take Shelter (2011) that it almost feels like another character in the film, writer-director Jeff Nichols using his frame to stretch these beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see. Yet amongst the vast fields, quiet neighbourhoods and empty skies sits something more ominous – a sense of foreboding that becomes increasingly apparent throughout. Curtis (Michael Shannon) has also noticed that there is something stirring on the horizon, Nichols’ opening scene showing him watching on, almost entranced, by a moody, shifting sky and oil-like rain that falls down onto him. But when Curtis begins to experience more strange things while he’s both awake and asleep, he soon fears that there is something terrible looming just around the corner – an unknown event that he knows he must protect his family from at all costs.
It is this increasing dread that makes up the heart of Take Shelter’s narrative, the nightmares that haunt Curtis becoming ever more horrifying and real. Birds fall from the sky, furniture levitates, sinister people attack him and his daughter (the adorable Tova Stewart), and people close to him become violent enemies. As each fresh nightmare brings another wave of paranoia and loss of sleep, Curtis starts to believe that these may actually be visions sent to warn him of something about to happen, whether that be a storm or something even worse. Trying to keep his nightmares and ever-crumbling state a secret from his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), Curtis decides that the only way to be sure is to prepare for any outcome, starting with fixing up the old storm shelter in their back yard. And very quickly, he becomes obsessed with creating this safe space for them, building and expanding on the shelter despite the family’s unstable financial situation or the fact that these ‘visions’ may simply be something he’s dreamed up.
While Curtis’ nightmares almost seem to take the film into horror territory, Nichols instead chooses to focus on the normalcy of the tale within this: the everyday moments between Curtis and his family, and between the other people in their small town. We see Curtis at work with his friend (Shea Whigham who’s brilliant here), eating meals with his family, his wife working on a weekend stall to sell her sewing, both of them going to sessions to help their deaf daughter learn sign language and, even more poignantly, both of them struggling to find treatment for her. It is quiet moments like this that resonate the most with us, Nichols building a realistic family portrait of them in order to draw us into their world, making us care what happens to them. It is also the emphasis on the everyday that makes it especially devastating to witness when their family unit does start to slowly fall apart, particularly when Curtis begins to question whether these dreams and ‘visions’ are real or not. In one particular scene he even asks himself, “Is anyone seeing this?” as he watches a magnificent lightning storm play across the night sky. And question is, what’s more heart-breaking: if there’s a real apocalypse coming, or if it turns out to all be in Curtis’ head?
This idea of mental health is handled subtly and realistically by Nichols in his script, Curtis quickly falling into an endless cycle of doctors and psychiatrists visits, while also looking for answers that might lie in his past. Yet it is Michael Shannon’s performance that brings Curtis’ tortured descent truly to life, his understated portrayal hinting at all of these questions raging in his mind while he tries to keep them from his wife and child. His face often visibly crumbles as he becomes steadily concerned about what’s on the horizon for them all, while his waking nightmares are painful to witness as he writhes about trying to shake them off. Yet it is a performance all about what’s beneath the surface – a role that is fascinating to see Shannon play, especially when he’s often now cast as the psychotic, raging villain (a role that, to be fair, he also expertly plays). Indeed, Curtis’ anger rarely comes to the surface, a stunning scene later on being the one exception – a scene that is both terrifying and heart-wrenching to watch.
It is also a moment beautifully balanced by Jessica Chastain’s poignant performance as Samantha, who looks on in horror, distraught that she can’t help her husband with what he’s going through. Chastain’s performance is a rollercoaster of internalised emotions throughout too, particularly when she begins to notice that Curtis is falling apart in front of her very eyes. A moment in which Curtis talks to her about his fears becomes less about what he’s saying, and more about her silent reaction, her wide eyes filled with tears as she sits in disbelief listening to him. It is one of the finest performance pairings you’ll ever witness, and one that gives Take Shelter its huge emotional heft, especially when Nichols is happy to simply sit back and let these scenes play out (something that he discusses in a detailed interview in the beautiful printed booklet included in this special Blu-ray release).
It is Nichols’ lightness of touch, steady pace and nuanced method to characterisation that keeps us hooked throughout, right up until an ending that is satisfying while not actually saying much – a moment that still hits us hard and which is wholly unexpected. While Nichols uses similar approaches in his other films, Take Shelter remains his most powerful, relatable work and an absolute must-watch, making this Limited Edition Blu-ray release a necessary buy. While the Blu-ray transfer makes those exquisite landscapes standout onscreen, and the improved audio track gives the ominous score greater heft, what makes it really worth the money is the many extras included. Interviews with Nichols, Shannon and Chastain are all brilliant and detailed, a Behind-The-Scenes look offers greater insight into the film’s production, and a 2011 Ebertfest Q&A might be overly long (1 hour and 10 minutes!), but contains some gems from Nichols and Shannon about how they work together. However it is a new interview with Nichols (titled ‘Building The Shelter’) that is the most vital, the writer-director talking in detail about his process with this, and his other films in general – an interview that is a joy to listen to. Nichols is truly one of the finest filmmakers around at the moment, and if you’ve never seen his work before, Take Shelter is certainly a good place to start.