Take Shelter (2011)
Dir: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham
I love that line in The Matrix, when Morpheus asks Neo something to the effect of whether he’s ever had a dream that seemed so real that it was difficult to tell fantasy from reality? With Take Shelter, it’s as if the director, Jeff Nichols, took that question and made a movie of it! The opening scene of Shelter supports my suspicion: Curtis, played masterfully by Michael Shannon, is standing in the driveway of his rural Ohio home when he notices a mysterious cloud above. It’s monstrous, as if it’s just waiting for the precise moment to funnel down into a tornado. But instead, rain starts to fall on him… and Curtis looks at his hands… and it seems to be motor oil? Well, this does not bode well! It’s literally :90 seconds into the film and I’m hooked.
The manner in which this scene is presented really toes that line between dream and reality. I had to go back and watch it again, and the signs are somewhat there, but the viewer isn’t necessarily wrong in viewing the montage as reality. Regardless, this episode is the first of several dreams that poor Curtis experiences over the course of Act One. A half hour into the film, Curtis is so worried about the bizarre, post-apocalyptic dreams he’s been having that he decides to build a massive tornado shelter in his backyard – and he doesn’t care what it costs! To put Curtis’ rash decision in perspective, one dream involved him meandering into his backyard to watch his little girl playing. This action, at first, seems very run of the mill. There’s even the family dog tied to a tree nearby. But then, the storm starts to come again (incidentally, this time we’re more prepared for the dream sequence). And then the dog starts going berserk. Growling and barking, more and more, Curtis looks from the ominous cloud to his daughter, to the dog, back to the cloud – and then the dog breaks the chain holding him around the tree! Curtis bravely dives in front of his daughter to protect her from the dog, but the canine bites down, hard, on poor Curtis’ forearm! Here’s the icing on the cake: the next day, Curtis’ forearm is really, really sore, though it bears no distinctive marks. Yeah, I might want to build a little bunker in my backyard after an experience like that…
Let’s change gears and talk about Curtis’ family. His wife Samantha, played by the actress that starred in a total of 110 films in 2011 (least it seems that way – and the more the better in my opinion), Jessica Chastain, is faithful, productive around the house, caring for the daughter and even finds time to make homemade household items and sell them at the local market. Samantha also dreams of hitting the beach in a luxurious condo, but she presents this idea to Curtis in a very loving manner, not nagging at all. Curtis’ daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), is hearing impaired, and the family’s finances and energy is focused on her. The family works together to keep Hannah learning new signs and her parents continually learn them with her. The disability that Hannah lives with is a detail indicative of how sophisticated this script is. This is not a random element to her character, which effects the whole family, too. It’s not just thrown in there. It would be easier for Curtis to look after her if she could hear – just like it’d be easier for Samantha to talk to Curtis regarding his sudden impulse to build the storm shelter, if only he wasn’t challenged by his own inability to communicate. This weakness of Curtis’, that he’s secretive and non-communicative is explained to us – we know he’s a loving father. To other characters in the story, however, they might see Curtis as a bad guy who acts a little crazy. But, he’s building the shelter with his family’s survival in mind.
About halfway in, here’s where the story really gets going. Curtis finally goes to visit his Mom, who has been mentioned here and there, but not discussed thoroughly (see note 1). It turns out that when his Mom was in her mid 30s, she took him to the grocery, left him in the car… and never came back. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, poor Mom has been in a mental care facility ever since. So here’s the big(ger) question – is Curtis seeing visions, or is he a schizophrenic like his Mom? The rest of the film, which involves some tremendous acting and a particularly difficult, cringe-worthy climax, is well worth a watch!
And here is the only semi-complaint (more of a question) I had with Take Shelter. Wouldn’t it have enriched the story even more to have Michael Shannon’s Curtis character be a religious man? What if the element of his schizophrenic Mom remained as it was presented, but it was also revealed that Curtis had seen visions as a kid? That the family’s pastor or priest or preacher had chatted at length with Curtis about some of the things he’d seen? Particularly with the film being set in rural Ohio, I think this element might have fit.
I don’t want to end this entry on a critique, though. So, I’ll credit primarily the acting and special effects of Take Shelter as the two elements that put this movie over the top. What I mean is, Shannon and Chastain were completely believable as a couple. They convinced me of who they were and what they wanted was clear. And Michael Shannon in particular stood out because of the myriad of emotions he had to portray: in this scene he was completely contained because it involved his boss, while in that scene in the community center, his “boiling over” didn’t seem forced – it felt right as if it had been a long time coming. As far as the special effects go, the “super storm” looked and sounded like what it sounds…. I think that the nature of the effects in Take Shelter were appropriate and not over-done: and best of all, essential to the story!
Note 1: This visit was another strength of the script: the story didn’t make it necessary to tell me, the audience member, everything I needed to know about Mom. In other words, the script kind of moved at the “speed of life,” as in I knew there was something to do with the character’s Mom, but I found out at the appropriate time. Too many stories give this grand update to the audience in the form of a meeting at the Pentagon, or a back room after the funeral. Frankly, I look forward to Mr. Nichols’ next film, particularly after liking his debut Shotgun Stories, too.