Take Shelter (2011)
(15) Running time: 120 mins
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writers: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wigham, Tova Stewart
Reviewed by: David Gillespie, official HCF artist
Madness has been portrayed in the movies throughout the years in comedy, horror, action and thriller genres. We’ve had Jack Nicholson’s wide eyed, axe weilding psychopath stalking the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and Robin William’s obsessed but reserved photo clerk terrorising a troubled family in One Hour Photo. Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter opts for the family drama and questions what you would do when your head is telling you one thing but your heart is telling you another? Can you rely on your instincts when you might be losing your mind?
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a reliable and amiable family guy who is well liked and respected around his small town. His best friend and workmate, Dewart (Shea Wigham) tells him he has got a good life and there is no better compliment that you can give a man. Unfortunately Curtiss has started to suffer from a series of apocalyptic nightmares and visions regarding a great storm where people and animals will turn on his family. When the dreams become so severe that his relationship with his loving wife, Samantha (the ever reliable Jessica Chastain) and daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) starts to suffer, he decides that medical advice is needed. Although he has an overwhelming urge to take action in preperation of these horrendous visions , he is also aware that his mother (Kathy Baker) was admitted to a mental institution for paranoid schizophrenia when she reached her thirties. Could he be losing his mind also? His doctor is aware of his history and suggests the name of a good psychiatrist. But Curtiss has already decided that his money will be better invested in his delapidated storm shelter. He can’t take the risk that these premonitions might come true.
Soon his work colleagues and friends are talking about his bizarre project. Samantha tries to reason with her husband but he won’t talk. Curtiss keeps looking at the skies and the strange way the birds are reacting. A storm is coming and they better be prepared.
Take Shelter is a warm but upsetting story. Curtiss, Samantha and Hannah are a highly believable and likeable family that you want things to work out for. When their lives are turned upside down due to the husband’s illness, you really can’t but hurt along with them. The project would be nothing if it not for the fine writing of Nichols and compelling performances from the cast. Most of the scenes are underplayed but natural. Wigham and Chastain evoke great sympathy from the audience by their expressions and body language alone as they watch their beloved friend and husband’s behaviour spiral out of control. Having been the saving grace of the recent Texan Killing Fields, Jessica Chastain seems to be proving one of the most accomplished actresses out there. Her onscreen chemistry with Shannon is also very strong.
Michael Shannon is a curious looking performer. Similar to actors like Christopher Walken, Peter Weller and James Woods, he is striking without having the typical, leading man good looks. You cannot take your eyes off of him for one second. Having had a number of supporting roles in critically acclaimed movies such as Revolutionary Road and Machine Gun Preacher, it is comforting to see him finally get a lead in a quality project with the actor taking full advantage of his opportunity. For the majority of the running time his performance is underplayed and restrained. However in the final quarter, Curtiss finally snaps and lets rip at the community that is mocking him. This sequence is worth the admission price alone and an incredible piece of cinema. I have no doubt that it will be this clip that we all see come the Oscars 2012 when Shannon is nominated in the Best Actor category.
The pace of the plot is slow but always compelling. There is an overwhelming build up of dread especially during the dream sequences that prove to be surreal and occasionally shocking. This is reinforced by the bitter sweet score by David Wingo and the inventive sound effects. Perhaps the final destination of the project might disappoint some but for me, Take Shelter is one of the most carefully contructed examples of mental illness in the movies that I have seen for some time.