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When done right, few tales are more riveting than a person’s descent into madness. Alfred Hitchcock proved this time and time again and Jeff Nichols reinforces it in Take Shelter, a film likely to have been lauded by the master of suspense himself. Anchored by the performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, “Shelter” broods and festers, but ultimately thrives on the brink between buildup and utter chaos.
Shannon, far from a household name, but a favorite of cinephiles since his head-turning supporting role in Revolutionary Road, stars as Curtis, a construction worker and father living in a rural town with his wife, Sam (Chastain), and their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Their daughter has developed extreme hearing loss and Curtis’ job provides them the benefits necessary to afford cochlear implants, but Curtis’ recent slew of horrifically real nightmares seems to be the real issue here.
In his dreams, Curtis experiences premonitions of a near-apocalyptic storm that includes odd bird flight formations, motor-oil-like rain, and twisters, and appears to make everyone that shows up in his dreams eerily violent, from his dog to complete strangers. The resulting paranoia and occasional physical side effects lead Curtis to seek medical attention, but also to start renovating the storm cellar in his backyard should his visions come true.
The question of whether Curtis is a prophet of sorts or just mentally disturbed drives the film — not much else does. Nichols tells this story largely through a series of character snapshots depicting Curtis riding the ups and downs caused by these nightmares. A few key moments boil the story to a point, namely a riveting scene when Curtis loses it at a social luncheon, but the pensive script withholds from us straight through the end like a well-trained indie film.
As we go deeper and deeper with Curtis — and eventually Samantha and Curtis’ best friend/co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham) — we do learn some key details about Curtis’ medical history that shed light on the situation, but even in the midst of fact, Nichols never gives us the satisfaction of arriving at any concrete conclusions about his predicament.
With the weight of an immensely introverted character dealing with a mental struggle placed squarely on his shoulders, Shannon proves why you’ll only see him with more and more frequency in the future. He makes sure we care about what happens to Curtis, but beyond that he slips back and forth between deserving sympathy and deserving skepticism. He is not simply some Jobian character to whom bad things are happening, and this makes his troubles all the more challenging for the viewer. Credit as well to Nichols for crafting a protagonist far from the norm.
The winner of 2011′s most ubiquitous actress award, Chastain, gets the more alpha-type role instead. She’s the good-hearted, open and loving type driven entirely by logic and unafraid of confrontation. Many will identify more with Samantha as a result, which adds a layer of complexity to the film to say the least.
Take Shelter offers compelling character-driven suspense, though at times it will try your patience. If you can chalk that up to quintessential indie filmmaking, then by all means do and enjoy this complex and challenging character portrait all the more for it. However, the real thrill of this type of film is that, at any moment, the bottom might drop out on the entire story (aka the shit might hit the proverbial… tornado); the difference between liking that and loving it is accepting when it doesn’t.
Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham