Powerful, tense, subtle, touching, realistic, hyper-realistic and beautiful. These are the words that come to mind when describing “Take Shelter,” the recent film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. “Take Shelter” is Nichols’ second feature film (a follow-up to 2007’s well-received “Shotgun Stories”), and it is among the best films of 2011.
The story unfolds in Ohio where Curtis LaForche and his wife, Samantha, both in their 30’s, live with their six-year-old daughter, Hannah. Curtis is a foreman with a sand mining company. Hannah is deaf and the couple is hoping to get her hearing implants. Times are tough economically. Samantha does seamstress work on the side to help make ends meet. These are real people with real life concerns–but they are a loving couple, a good family.
Soon Curtis begins having disturbing visions and dreams. He says they are more than dreams; they’re feelings of impending doom. He envisions people attacking his family, swarms of birds, rain that feels like slick oil on his hands and fierce storms. He can’t sleep. He begins to seek psychological help, but his anxiety drives him to clean up the storm shelter in their backyard to prepare for the coming apocalypse.
In “Take Shelter” we witness either an anxious man’s slow descent into madness or real life impending doom. The film is intentionally dubious in its meaning. Nichols has crafted a smart and emotional indie/art film, but also imbued it with tension and technical elements that one might find in a more mainstream thriller–or even in a classic Hitchcock film. No small accomplishment. The film alternates between quiet midwestern realism and riveting psycho-drama. At it’s heart, though, the movie is about a couple working to stay together–working to be on the same page, so to speak.
The greatest beauty of “Take Shelter” is the performance by Michael Shannon. It is perhaps the best acting by a male actor I’ve seen since Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”. Shannon plays Curtis as a strong, sensitive, family man, rooted in real-life, yet who is also appropriately over-the-edge for this material. If you enjoy good acting, you owe it to yourself to see Shannon in “Take Shelter.” According to director Nichols, Shannon required little coaching or rehearsal, and they shot the film in 4 weeks completely out of sequence. You would never know this when you see the film, because Shannon’s characterization is spot-on. The film is wonderfully supported by Jessica Chastain as Samantha, along with Tova Stewart who plays Hannah. There are also good performances from Shea Whigham as Dewart, Curtis’ co-worker and friend, and Ray McKinnon seen only briefly as Kyle, Curtis’ brother.
The film isn’t perfect. (The dialogue in a couple of scenes felt contrived to me.) Despite this minor item, “Take Shelter” is a great film from a promising, talented, young American director.
2011, Rated R, 120 minutes, Drama
Rating 3.5 out of 4 stars