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Take Shelter (2011)

November 8, 2011

written by: Jeff Nichols
produced by: Sophia Lin, Tyler Davidson
directed by: Jeff Nichols
rating: R (for some language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: January 24, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival), September 30, 2011 (NY/LA) & October 14, 2011 (limited)
Earlier this year, I was walking down Armitage Avenue when I found myself passing actor Michael Shannon. I didn’t realize it right away, but I figured since Steppenwolf Theatre is just down the street, it must be him. Those recognizable eyes of his radiated an unsettling vibe that prevented even the thought of a non-verbal acknowledgement on my part. For all I know, he may be a sweetheart off-screen, but when an actor primarily known for playing characters that are quietly unhinged or completely off the deep end, my first inclination was to give the guy his space.
That’s a testament to Shannon’s talent, which is on once again present in his latest film, “Take Shelter”, giving viewers a slightly similar but richer, more complicated role than we’ve seen him in lately.  The film is a reunion with writer/director Jeff Nichols, who worked with the actor on 2007’s “Shotgun Stories”, and while it’s being marketed as a psychological thriller with apocalyptic undertones, it is so much more than that.  

34 year-old Curtis (Michael Shannon) is noticing strange happenings in the normally clear, puffy-clouded Ohio blue sky. Ominous dark clouds build and loom with crackling lightning and booming thunder. He notices the rain that comes down is dark and oily on his hand. The birds in the air are acting strange too and then there’s the violent acts Curtis witnesses (and is victim to) by crazed strangers around him. What is going on? Is he the only human noticing all this? More importantly, is this reality or surreal dreams? Whatever the explanation, Curtis is understandably disturbed.



On the outside, it looks like Curtis has a good life. He and his loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) raise their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tovah Stewart) in a nice home with their pet dog. Samantha sells handmade crafts to save up for a Myrtle Beach family vacation, while Curtis holds down a solid construction job, which may even cover sweet Hannah’s cochlear implant. Even Dewart (Shea Wigham) his co-worker/best friend sees it and feels compelled to point out to Curtis, “you have a good life, man”.
But these unsettling visions are increasing for Curtis and they soon bleed into every aspect of his life. He becomes impatient and withdrawn as he tries to seek help through doctors and checks out books from the library on mental health, fearing he may wind up like his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker), who now lives in a home. Without confiding in anyone close to him, Curtis decides to construct an elaborate expansion on the old underground storm shelter in his backyard. He only wants to protect his family from what he believes to be an inevitable doomsday, and maybe in doing so, figure out what is causing him to lose his grip. Such behavior puts an understandable strain on his marriage, his job, and most importantly, his sanity.
“Take Shelter” opens with beautiful scenes of quite observation by cinematographer Adam Stone, focusing on the sound of blowing wind and rolling thunder. We are as absorbed as Curtis is by the odd natural elements around him. There’s a tension building, one that makes us stop and remind ourselves that we are part of something bigger, something we have little control over. As the story progresses, we becomes just as curious by and absorbed with Curtis as he is of these strange surroundings.

The audience draw here is immediate and it’s first and foremost due to Shannon’s performance, portraying a guy coming undone, but also someone we can relate to. He wants the best for his family, but he also has his own internal struggles to wrestle with. Instead of just portraying Curtis as a one-note power keg ready to blow (although one excellent scene shows just that), Nichols and Shannon take the time to give the role complexity. There are tender scenes with Curtis signing with Hananh, as well as a wonderful scene at his daughter’s school where we see him inject levity to a frustrating moment with Samanatha. These are needed scenes that show us that these people could be you or me, instead of stereotypical characterizations of the internalized husband/father and the frail wife/mother.
On that note, it’s refreshing to see that Chastain is given a role that has such a good balance of  fragility and strength. Samantha loves her husband yet isn’t dependant on him and doesn’t need him for her own identity. Of course, she becomes increasingly worried and concerned for Curtis, not just for him, but because of what his behavior is doing to their family, but her responses are real, never giving into histrionics. A perfect example of the amazing talent Chastain brings to the role is when Curtis finally opens up to his wife about what’s been going on with him. Watch the choices Chastain makes as she silently takes in this shocking information and you’ll see why 2011 is her year.






As much as there is a palpable sense of climate turmoil in “Take Shelter”, there is also an understated political metaphor present. The film touches on the unstable financial times we’re in and the worry and stress it brings, but Nichols doesn’t bash us over the head with that. Thankfully, we’re able to identify that (and everything else) all on our own, yet Nichols keeps us guessing through the emotional climax and the unforgettable (and possibly divisive) ending.

“Take Shelter” will stay with you well after viewing and if you see it with someone, you are likely to have hours of lively discussion. That’s because here is that rare perfect storm of a movie that has an absorbing story, great acting, and a director who respects and trusts his audience.



RATING: ****



10 Comments leave one →
  1. francesca permalink
    February 14, 2012 8:55 am

    Take Shelter is a great example of how really good writing, acting and directing just come together quietly and make a completely satisfying film. I loved it, loved the tension, the palpable fear, the spectre of the apocalyptic and not knowing if that was internalised or externalised – I started to feel really anxious myself whilst watching it, always a good sign! What made it so special too was the development of Samantha’s character which was so much more than I expected – her strength and love, were ultimately what made that ending so moving…and yes we did talk about it at some length afterwards, and although we had different takes on it at first, we were always on the same wavelength about its intention.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 14, 2012 9:40 am

      I really hope now that it is avail. here in the States on DVD/Blu-ray, that more people will be seeing it. Adam Kempenaar, of Filmspotting) has an interesting theory/observation on the film’s ending. You can find it by clicking all the way at the bottom of this page….

  2. francesca permalink
    February 14, 2012 11:51 am

    That really is a beautiful and satisfying theory and one that ties in exactly with what Nichols himself says, at least according to the IMdB message board…!

    “It’s specifically designed to be ambiguous. That really riles
    some people and some people really love it. What’s funny and
    interesting to me — and not to sound too cocky about it, but
    I really do think it worked — is everybody talks about the
    specifics of what’s happening in that scene. And to me, the
    specifics don’t matter that much. And I’ll explain.

    What is happening, what is going to happen, all that is just
    fun to talk about. But what’s important to me is that these
    two people are on the same page and are seeing the same thing.
    There’s several interpretations of where they’re at. And
    that’s great. But as long as they’re seeing the same thing I
    think there is a resolution and the possibility of hope in
    the film.”

    Stef and I were unsure of what we were seeing, but we felt that as they were all seeing it, it meant hope and recovery..isn’t it great that there are films that are still this interesting!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 14, 2012 12:29 pm

      Ah, I really like what he’s saying there at the end “on the same page” – there really is a moment of clarity for the two characters after what they’ve seen in the end – there’s no gettin’ around that!


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