To describe Take Shelter as one man’s struggle to (mentally) keep it together in an economically unstable, recessionary environment makes the film sound horribly bleak. It isn’t. But this quiet indie blend of domestic drama and psychological thriller IS horribly ominous. And at the same time, terrifically well acted.
In Take Shelter, the future General Zod, Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar nice guy admired in his small town. Times are tough but this husband and father is committed to caring for his young family, particularly his deaf little daughter. There’s a lot of pressure on Curtis as the major provider – his supportive wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) contributes as a seamstress – but despite the struggles, he seems to have a good, if permanently budget-conscious, life.
Then the night terrors and daytime visions start: Monstrous storms pouring a dark, greasy rain that transforms people into maniacs. Freakish clouds of panicked, black birds… For Curtis, these “premonitions” have extra horrifying significance. His mother (Kathy Baker) succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia at around the same age he is now.
Take Shelter is most gratifying if you view it as a credible examination of what it’s like to cope with mental illness when you actually can’t afford to. Literally and figuratively. Curtis is a breadwinner with others counting on him, and at the expense of losing his job, and the medical benefits that will pay for his daughter’s surgery, he keeps his visions secret. But as his stress and shame escalates, so too does his overwhelming compulsion to protect his family from impending disaster. Instead of building an Ark though, this 21st Century Noah plunges resources into renovating his backyard storm shelter, kitting it out with plumbing, gas masks and other expensive goodies for extended survival underground.
What makes Take Shelter refreshingly different from so many other Hollywood examinations of mental breakdown is that Curtis doesn’t lose his love for his family. Mental illness isn’t like flicking a switch, instantly transforming our hero from good to ghoulish. Although his interactions with his wife and daughter become drenched with dread – enhanced by the film’s eerie, ethereal score – Curtis is conscious of what’s happening, and struggles to remain in control of the situation even as reality and dark fantasy blur.
Take Shelter is a strongly performance driven film. Despite being denied Oscar nominations, Shannon and 2011 breakout talent Chastain have racked up almost 30 award wins between them since the film’s release at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. And the actors are highly deserving of their praise. If, for whatever reason, they attempted another (more faithful) adaptation of The Shining tomorrow, Shannon – who has already played his share of disturbed characters – would be an ideal choice for Jack Torrance teetering on the edge, desperately trying to keep his family and his demons apart.
Take Shelter doesn’t feel especially “arty,” but it’s certainly not a film for everyone. Given that it takes its sweet time building atmosphere, you probably need to have the patience of an art cinema regular to full appreciate the movie’s quiet, slow burn approach to depicting mounting paranoia and menace. You certainly become invested in finding out whether Curtis is mentally ill or has somehow been granted foresight about an approaching Apocalyptic event.
The final scene of Take Shelter, when it arrives though, isn’t as entirely convincing as everything that preceded it. For 2 hours we’ve witnessed Curtis and Samantha’s pragmatic approach to preparation, and tendency to always have a plan. Suddenly, though, that all evaporates and they’re going with the moment.
It will be interesting to see how Take Shelter ages. It’s very much a film of its time, channelling the world’s current pessimism about everything from the economy to the environment, as well as the belief (encouraged in the media) that something extra awful and unstoppable is just beyond the horizon. Right now, it’s this very social context that has given Take Shelter a hefty chunk of its unsettling power.
Last Updated: April 17, 2012