A film review by Craig J. Koban December 8, 2011

Rank:  #7


2011, R, 122 mins.


Curtis: Michael Shannon / Samantha: Jessica Chastain / Dewart: Shea Whigham / Hannah: Tova Stewart / Kyle: Ray McKinnon / Sarah: Kathy Baker / Kendra: Lisa Gay Hamilton / Jim: Robert Longstreet

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

I sometimes struggle with coming up with new ways to describe just what a magnetic and unforgettable screen presence Michael Shannon is, but I will endeavor to do so here.  

If you saw REVOLUTIONARY ROAD then you may recall the gifted character actor stealing scenes right away from co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with his own unique and unrivalled aura of creepy edginess.  Even in forgettable films like THE RUNAWAYS his matchless and explosive vigor was on full display and made the film better as a result.  Regardless of the role, Shannon has always come across as a performer of exceptional power and presence, someone that knows how to impeccably use stillness and a penetrating stare and then follow that up with an unstable and enthralling energy.  He holds my attention on screen and even when he unsettles me so much and wants me to look away, I find that I just can't. 

All of his skills are on full and masterful display in TAKE SHELTER, where he has taken on perhaps his most complex, captivating, and evocatively realized role yet.  He plays Curtis LaForche, who initially in the film seems like an ordinary, hard working Middle American that makes a living at an Ohio sand-mining company.  He has a loving and beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain, an ethereal beauty) and they, in turn, have a bright-eyed and healthy – outside of her hearing impairment - six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).  If anything, Curtis is living a life of normalcy and marital and parental happiness. 

Yet, underneath the facade of this otherwise ordinary father/husband lurks a dark and slowly deteriorating mind.  At first, Curtis is plagued by unusual dreams that he initially ignores as inconsequential.  Then he becomes more increasingly plagued by nightmares, some which become so intense and disturbing that he either wakes up in a pool of sweat or, in one embarrassing instance, in his own urine.  He becomes a figure of deep, self-doubting unease as he is beleaguered by more nightmares, which seem to manifest themselves in hallucinations during broad daylight.  His nightmares have involved doomsday-apocalyptic visions of violent and intense storms that pour oil-like rain over everything and others include faceless attackers lunging after him and his daughter.  One even has his dog attack him.   

Curtis reacts in ways perhaps only he can: he builds a pen for his once beloved dog outside, now fearing the animal because of his visions.  When he begins to have more spontaneous and disquieting visions he goes to the local library and searches for reading material on mental illness.  He visits his family doctor, who in turn recommends him to a psychiatrist, who proves to be too far away for him to visit.  He then goes and visits his semi-estranged mom in a desperate attempt for some answers.  His mother (played briefly, but memorably by Kathy Baker) became schizophrenic when Curtis was 10-years-old, which has left him with the nagging feeling that he too could have developed the same disorder. 



Things snowball down ever further for Curtis.  He becomes fanatic about his ramshackle and barely used storm shelter outside in his backyard.  He begins to spend more time in it.  He cleans it up, begins stocking it with perishable grocery items and then, when his damaging psychosis seems to be reaching its peak, he decides to spend his weekends expanding the shelter with a bedroom area and toilet facilities, which he makes without Samantha knowing and with the unlawful use of his employer's heavy moving equipment.  His break from a normal plane of reality seems to be shifting to the worst possible extremes, damaging his friendships, his marriage, and even his employment.  As he unravels, much to Samantha’s frightened dismay, he seems sure that the end of the world is near and that the shelter is his family’s last salvation.  In the film’s unforgettable climax, a storm - much like the one from his nightmares – seems to come, and Curtis and his family flee to the shelter and then… 

Discussing the film more would approach spoiler territory, but one thing that TAKE SHELTER does so well is that it gives us an apocalypse drama/thriller that’s not reliant on visual effects or perfunctory action scenes that seem to dominate so many other similar examples of the genre.  Instead, director Jeff Nichols – a wonderfully promising up-and-coming talent - builds his apocalypse film on an unnerving escalation of tension and dread.  Like masters of the thriller genre, Nichols knows how to frighten us by not being predictable or relying on woeful formulas.  He shows incredible restraint, poise, and patience with unraveling the story because Curtis, as a character, also slowly unravels from sanity.  From its opening sequence – which shows one of Curtis’ first terrifying visions of apocalyptic rainstorms – Nichols grabs audience members and puts a vice-like grip on them for two hours.  The narrative pacing is slow and deliberate, yes, but done out of necessity: we feel, like Curtis’ family, trapped within the fractured and tormented recesses of his mind. 

Here’s another extraordinary thing about TAKE SHELTER: it’s remarkably evenhanded and sympathetic when it comes to Curtis himself.  In another witless and contrived thriller, Curtis would have been presented as a one-note lunatic without any redeeming qualities, but in TAKE SHELTER he’s more fascinatingly defined than that.  He's a conflicted, tormented, and sick individual, but he’s not stupid, nor is he recklessly uncaring.  He loves his family and wants to protect them from what he thinks is the end to come.  He takes necessary steps to seek mental health assistance.  He tries to research his delusions.  He reaches out to his sick mother who may or may not have answers for him.  He confesses to his wife about his mental illness when he’s at his lowest point.  Curtis is a good man that is sickened with damaging psychological forces that he cannot control.  He’s no maniac.   

TAKE SHELTER wisely never attempts to answer our questions about Curtis either.  Does Curtis really have schizophrenia?  Are his visions just manifestations of all of his pent up unease living in an economically ravaged world where the future is unclear (his daughter, after all, needs costly implants that could save her from her hearing impairment, but that cost money Curtis does not have)?  More compellingly, is Curtis really a psychic prophet that can indeed predict the comings of the apocalypse?  There is ample evidence in the film to support a “yes” or “no” answer to the latter, but Nichols is perceptive enough of a storyteller to let us make up our minds, at least until the final scene, which is eerily disquieting for its lingering power. 

I almost forgot to mention the thankless way that Jessica Chastain – emerging fully in 2011, with seven films under her belt, as one of the pre-eminent actresses working today – evokes her wife role with a humility, tenderness, and introverted intensity (she’s utterly heartbreaking in the film’s key scene when Curtis tearfully reveals all of his secrets).  Then, of course, there is the exhilaratingly jittery presence of Shannon, who occupies nearly every frame of TAKE SHELTER, and never once tips off precisely where his performance is heading in the film.  He’s perhaps more subtle and reserved here than in his other films, but this just means that when Curtis has reached a mental boiling point and erupts with a volcanic and incensed rage, you know you’re witnessing one of 2011’s most singularly distressing and fearlessly unhinged performances.  He single-handedly makes TAKE SHELTER a supernatural horror thriller unlike any I’ve seen.

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