Saturday, June 18, 2011

SFF Review: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Jeff Nichols' second feature film, Take Shelter, which he both wrote and directed, is close to a masterpiece. With a deeply resonating sense of unease that encompasses its entirety, this slow-burning thriller follows the plaguing effects that a series of apocalyptic dreams have on a young husband and father. It dwells on the effects it has on his family's quality of life and how they manage to endure the terrifying trauma. Take Shelter, certainly one of the frontrunners for the Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival, was also selected to screen in Critics Week at Cannes, where it took out the Jury Prize.

Curtis LaForce (Michael Shannon) lives in a small town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah. Curtis makes a modest living as a crew chief for a sand-mining company while Samantha works as a part-time seamstress supplementing their income by selling home-made wares at a flea market on the weekend. Money is tight, and managing Hannah's healthcare and special needs education is tough. The benefits of Curtis' professional health insurance ensure they can afford Hannah's cochlear implant. While Curtis is a loving family man and devoted husband, he is also quietly suffering from a series of vivid, terrifying, nightmarish dreams of an approaching apocalyptic storm.

Are these delusional nightmares indicative of his ailing psychological health and descent into paranoid schizophrenia or true premonitions of a pending apocalypse? The dreams always start the same way; thick viscous rain falls from the black-cloud riddled sky, thunder rumbles and lightning strikes the landscape. The dreams then transform into a number of horrific circumstances; the family dog attacks Curtis, his daughter is abducted by mysterious figures, and the furniture in his house levitates in the air. He always wakes up in a state of pain or paranoia, with the effects of the dreams deftly blended into Curtis' daily life. He channels his apocalyptic anxieties by building a storm shelter in their backyard, taking out a risky loan and illegally using equipment from work to build it. He stockpiles tinned food and buys gas masks for his family in preparation. His mysterious behaviour alienates him from co-workers and neighbours and gravely concerns Samantha, placing tension on their marriage. To Curtis, none of these weigh as heavily on his conscience as the private fear of what his dreams may signify.

With a sense of measured ambiguity and calculated mystery, Nichols really nails the ominous mood and has expertly built a film centred around the emotions of dread and anxiety, and works as a haunting but sensitive, and ultimately tragic, analysis of a man wrestling with crippling anxieties, and likely the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia. Curtis' fears double as those experienced by contemporary society, not necessarily about a pending ecological disaster, but also about falling victim to an uncertain economy. Take Shelter really delves into the pressures of raising a family, the threat of unemployment as part of the recession, and the necessity of retaining good health insurance. Curtis' irrational spending as a result of his paranoia, places their formerly happy lives, both psychologically and financially, in jeopardy.

What keeps this brooding, ominous, slow-burning thriller from being perfect is the glacial paced second act, which eliminates the presence of the dreams, and focuses more on Curtis' strange behaviours, the effects it has on his family and neighbours, and his psychotherapy. Just as we think the medication is taking effect and the premonitory anxieties are over, we are pulled back in to a stunningly ambiguous climax. It is this brief period that threatens to lose the audience, but it is the strength of the performances, and Nichols' controlled direction and confidence in his craft, which ensure it is captivating enough to pull through.

The exceptional Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichols' debut feature film Shotgun Stories, has recently seen his reputation rise following a small role in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a scene-stealing performance in Revolutionary Road (where he was nominated for an Oscar) and work amongst the outstanding ensemble of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. An often intense, awkward and unhinged performer, his empowering presence is effective in portraying this anxious everyday man weakened by inner demons, watching his masculinity threatened and himself psychologically unwind.

While compelled to act out of fear of his vivid premonitions, he is simultaneously aware that he might be experiencing the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia his mother (Kathy Baker) was similarly diagnosed with in her 30's. He effortlessly balances his fears for his personal health and sanity with the lives of his family, questioning whether he should shelter them from the coming storm, or from himself. Though he clearly recognises something is wrong (and takes to reading books about mental illness in his unfinished shelter late at night) he can't help but invest in equipment and supplies. Jessica Chastain, whose beautiful presence was memorable amidst the spectacle of Tree of Life, is also outstanding. Committed to her husband, the love she retains for him is convincing, despite watching him transform into someone she doesn't know.

Take Shelter is very impressive, and one of the films that has lingered with me the most following the screening. The build-up is genuinely creepy, and apart from a short period that feels a little bit laborious, it is near perfection. Shannon and Chastain are outstanding, the ending is killer, and it addresses some very real contemporary fears. I sense it may find itself amongst serious consideration come Oscar season.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)


  1. Great review Andy! I didn't mind the slow parts as much, because I thought they provided a good contrast to some of the more vivid scenes, as well as highlighted whole other sets of fears that were facing the family. It's definitely a film that speaks to today's crises!

  2. Thank you! I have seen the film once more since writing this review, and I was completely fine with the film's pacing the second time round. You're right, it does accentuate the dream sequences, which have genuine shock value, and continue to develop other fears - economical, his crisis of masculinity, and we watch him become more detached from his family and colleagues. I loved the film, and I think the ending is a massive WTF!

  3. I really want to agree, but I can't. After two viewings, I've come to the conclusion that I like the film, but don't find it as gripping as a lot of people have said it is. I think it's because it starts so strongly, with those AMAZINGLY intense dream sequences...once it pulls back to focus on the family drama, my attention began to wander slightly (until those final 15 minutes, which were terrific). Great performances and tons of fascinating ideas, but it just didn't resonate with me :( Great review though, and glad you loved it!

  4. I really enjoyed 'Take Shelter'. I'm not surprised that I did, but it reminded me what I love best about 'The Twilight Zone'. I'd be surprised if I was the only harping on that similarity, but it increased my enjoyment of the film. Talk about two actors that need to get more famous fast. Shannon and Chastain were excellent in this picture. Glad to have read your review and thanks for adding me on your blogroll.

  5. Thanks for visiting Max. Yeah, this film is extraordinary (but I haven't seen The Twilight Zone so I can't make that comparison) and the levels of trauma the films delves into - not just the ecological, but also economic and familial - really gives this film depth and makes it a resonating experience. I hope Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are recognised for their work, two of the year's best performances, for sure.

  6. I really hope Shannon and Chastain are remembered come awards time as well. I dug everything about this film. Funny how you don't need millions of dollars to scare and intrance an audience. Nice review, my friend.

  7. Thanks for reading man. For sure. It's genuinely creepy at times, and becomes a heart-wrenching drama.

  8. Dear Andy,
    your "Emporium" site is wonderful - reviews are bang on. The wealth of film data you've compiled analyzed and dissected is beautifully put together and
    a huge credit to you. Ian Barry.

  9. Hello Ian,

    Thank you so much for taking a look at my site, and for the kind words of encouragement and support. I spend a lot of time watching and writing about film, and I am really happy with what I have achieved in 2011, but it's lovely to have such positive feedback from an esteemed industry professional such as yourself. I hope I can keep it up this year. Happy New Year to you!


    Andy Buckle