An enthralling and surreal drama, in Take Shelter we follow Michael Shannon’s drill operator and family man who begins to experience lucid dreams of an incoming storm. As his visions grow more disturbing with rabid dogs, a car crash and zero gravity furniture he becomes more distant from his wife and everyone around him. It’s a film about the unpredictable and the innate safety of contemporary society and the general assumption that the unexpected does not ever happen. The film shares many qualities with director Jeff Nichols’ debut feature, Shotgun Stories, in that it revolves around family turmoil in a rural town with bouts of violence.
A major theme is the breakdown of communication as Michael Shannon increasingly becomes more closed off, interacting less and less with his wife who already does not have many people she can talk to as she resides with her deaf daughter. Her husband becomes more erratic every time she leaves the house, digging up a large hole in the back garden to place a shipping container inside and constructing a dog house with barbed wire for their house trained pet.
The journey of Shannon’s character becoming more emotionally and mentally detached from his wife and his fellow workers is executed with subtlety as he becomes more irrational; which is credit to Nichols’ superb script. While some will find it slow-moving, the pace is succinct with Curtis’ isolation from his wife even though his intentions are noble and he has a family history of mental disorder. We are guided through his slow decline as the people around him begin to take notice of his detachment; such as his boss, his brother Kyle, his work friend Dewart and his wife who he shuts out the most.
Jessica Chastain’s Samantha, Curtis’ wife, is the second most important role in the film. As we follow Curtis through his visually arresting nightmares, we watch how Samantha is forced to come to terms with her husbands’ strange behaviour; we are left feeling sympathy for both Curtis and Samantha. A strong motif is the strength of the household and importance of family. Both the loyalty and patience of Samantha are tested as Curtis changes their priorities and spends their savings in preparation for a supposedly apocalyptic event in which no one will be safe.
A strong sense of drama prevails, including a brilliant monologue scene at a company dinner, as Shannon’s family man begins to crack up under the hallucinations of an inbound cloud of tornados or maybe just an inevitable, genetically related mental breakdown; his mother is living in a home after her own breakdown around Curtis’s age. The effects are stunning and a stark contrast to the summery, bustling tree lined driveways of small Ohio town. Shots of a swarm of swirling birds, clusters of lightning arterially scorching a black sky and the looming storm cloud itself are all very biblical, grand imagery in this fatalistic tale.
It soon becomes difficult to discern what is actually happening and what Curtis is envisioning. However, you begin to wonder as the film goes on whether Curtis’ prediction is correct. It is a thrilling narrative device as we wonder whether it is the onset of a mental illness or really a Nostradamus-esque gift that will result in a devastating mega storm. Secretly wishing it’s the latter for the climax and so Curtis can finally prove everyone wrong; the film will keep you guessing until the very end.
This is worth watching for Michael Shannon’s captivating performance but it also reveals a promising talent in writer-director Jeff Nichols for his stunning, supernatural storytelling as well as keeping the film away from the melodrama that it could quite easily become. It is the gradual breakdown of Curtis going behind his wife rather than any overt display that makes this a brilliant character study. It is also this subtle character arc that keeps the tension and mystery of the film going with a question; is he suffering a mental breakdown or is there really going to be a storm?