There’s gonna be a storm.
It certainly seems like we’ve had a lot of “end-of-the-world” movies lately. The most recent to make an impression was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and also approaching the apocalypse from the art-house side is this, the latest from writer/director Jeff Nichols.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) starts having terrifying visions of horrible storms. He decides to keep them from his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Samantha (Tova Stewart) but starts work expanding his tornado shelter. Has he inherited his mother’s schizophrenia or is the end really coming?
A sleepy little town in Ohio is a nice choice for the site of the start of the end of the world. Wide open spaces, big sky country, and close-knit communities. But for all the apocalyptic nightmares, Take Shelter is a family drama first and foremost. Nichols takes great care to make Curtis’ family a believable and strong unit. Curtis and Samantha are waiting for an operation to help their daughter get her hearing back, they’re making enough money to get by, and they’re saving for their annual holiday. When Curtis begins to behave irrationally, his first commitment is that he will not leave his family, unlike his mother (played superbly in a single scene by Kathy Baker). This is a family that is not easily ripped apart.
Shannon is fast becoming one of the most interesting American actors and it’s always a treat to watch him in a lead role. While he’s certainly played some grotesque characters in the past, what’s arresting here is how much he chooses to play Curtis’ stillness. He’s not out on the street screaming for people to join his cause; he’s trying to appear as normal as possible so he can keep his job and his family together. Shannon was the perfect choice for this and gives an award-worthy turn. He’s perfectly matched with Chastain, who utterly convinces as the strong wife and mother while keeping her believable and free from clichés. Together with Stewart, their depiction of the family is arguably what makes Take Shelter successful.
Nichols doesn’t rush things, approaching things with a pace similar to his last, the slow-burn revenge drama Shotgun Stories (also starring Shannon). This is not to say it’s not thrilling. The visions are striking and impressively haunting. Lightning streaks across the sky, birds swarm, the rain falls a sickly motor-oil yellow. However, they mostly take place early in the film, and perhaps could have done with being spread a little more evenly through the running time. As it is, the film does slow down a little too much during the second act, though it’s never dull.
As Curtis nears his breaking point, we are never allowed to break our connection with him and his family. The desperation with which we want him to come to his senses shows just how well Take Shelter grips its audience. Every time that haunting music cue starts we get goosebumps.
Verdict: Take Shelter is haunting, compelling, and moving. An excellent second feature from Nichols and Shannon and Chastain are superb.