Something wicked this way comes.
Just ask Michael Shannon’s Curtis LaForche in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, an unnerving American pastorale about a family man plagued by the prospect of apocalyptic destruction. Curtis is an Ohio sandminer living a stable if sometimes financially stressful existence with beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah, who is deaf. His best friend Dewart (Shea Wigham) tells him ‘You’ve got a good life’, but in an opening scene we watch literal dark clouds form over Curtis’ head and thick, golden rain pours from the heavens. Curtis wakes up distressed; he assumes it was a dream, but then these ominous visions continue, causing him to question if they aren’t really some sort of celestial forecast.
At first, for Curtis, it’s just the dreams, featuring the life he knows turning against him violently; faceless strangers try to abduct his daughter, Dewart inexplicably attacks him, and even the family dog bites him viciously. Eventually, there are manifestations in the waking natural world –witnessed only by Curtis–that seem to gesture towards some oncoming catastrophic event, signaled by the hallucinatory storm. Flocks of birds fly in odd formations, the bright summer day is darkened by seemingly phantasmal clouds and at one point Sam and Hannah sit napping in the car while Curtis watches towering streaks of lightning cascade across the horizon and wonders aloud ‘Is anyone else seeing this?’ A very good question.
But no one is sharing in Curtis’ disquiet about ominous portents because the cares of the present are worrying enough. Money is tight and the family wages a campaign for health care insurance so Hannah can get cochlear implant surgery. Samantha is a stay-at-home mom whose craft-making business lets her save away cake-tin money for a vacation to the beach. Curtis’ own weird behavior is driving a wedge between he and Sam. He’s doing research on mental illness, and visiting his institutionalized mother, a paranoid schizophrenic, to see if any of what she’s got has leaked down the line. He visits a doctor and requests medication. Finally, Curtis takes action and begins to convert a backyard tornado shelter into an underground sanctuary against the cataclysm, drifting away from those he wants to protect with each step forward. Samantha, Hannah and Dewart watch on with concern and curiosity.
Shot through with a visually alluring paranoia, Take Shelter is the quintessential movie of our moment, an exploration of cultural uncertainty and anxiety weighted against interior madness. All of this is done with great care and artistry. There’s no frame of Take Shelter that isn’t engaging or perplexing and it takes its time to be good; building an architecture of dread out of its mundane family scenario, the surrealistic fear of the dream sequences, and from the tremendous performance of Michael Shannon, who looks as if he heard the final trumpet sound hours ago and the horsemen are already on their way. In fact, it’s Shannon, with his unconventional features and alarming presence that elevates Take Shelter from an interesting exercise to a surprisingly absorbing and hypnotic film, one of the best of the year.
Shannon is no stranger to tormented or damaged characters, having played a paranoid schizophrenic soldier in Bug, an unnerving neighbor in Revolutionary Road, and the wolfish, creepy rock promoter Kim Fowley in The Runaways. As Curtis, he’s not channeling full creep, but instead a normal working class guy struggling with knowledge that no one else has. This is tricky work, and Shannon—who has often been compared to a younger Christopher Walken—approaches Take Shelter and Curtis similar to the wayWalken handled Johnny Smith, the character in Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Smith saw the dark future of those he physically touched, while Curtis’ visions are not necessarily the future, but either a prophecy or encroaching mental illness.
Shannon actually delivers the stronger, more challenging performance because there’s ambiguity regarding Curtis viewpoint; if he’s not the next Noah, then he’s headed down the road of madness. But Shannon plays him as both a specific, well rounded character and as an audience surrogate; we have been prompted to feel sympathy for many a mentally sick individual in the cinema, but here we are moved to identification. Afterall, Curtis wants to protect his family and friends, preserve his way of life, stave off the uncertain and destructive waiting around the bend. Who among us has not wanted the very same thing for ourselves or those we love?
Whether it’s wandering through the fantasias of his mind or interacting with Chastain and Wigham, Shannon retains a normalcy that grounds the rest of the picture and consequently stirs up the apocalyptic imagery too. Jessica Chastain is another good wife helping a husband who feels rundown by the nature of the world and his place in it, much as she was in Malick’s Tree of Life. We have seen her everywhere recently, but as Samantha she’s given one of the best female performances of the year. The theme of familial solidarity that runs through the troubled heart of Take Shelter is bolstered by Chastain’s Samantha, who seeks to understand and help her husband, even in the face of what appears to be his gradual descent into madness. Wigham, an actor who has been slowly insinuating himself into the cinematic landscape, does solid work as Dewart, and he’s important too; in his eyes we see the value of all Curtis has, and it better helps us understand why the latter is striving so hard to protect it against unseen assailants.
As director, Jeff Nichols does an understated and exquisite job of translating what is a pitch perfect script into a film worthy of such ambiguities and subtle intimations. He stages the day to day life of Curtis with an close and sensitive touch, laboring over details that add up slowly. Consider a scene where Curtis and Sam still talk about the fact they still whisper and avoid noise while their deaf daughter sleeps, out of expectation, not habit. The dream sequences are superbly staged, and they walk a clever tightrope between surreal terror and real-world threat. If Curtis is crazy, then we will feel what he feels. There are multiple ways to tackle a film dealing with the end of the world, and Take Shelter is possibly the best once since Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Peter Weir’s The Last Wave. It is, however, more personal and attentive to human emotion. We stood outside those other pictures as observers. Here, we are so intimately entwined with Curtis and Sam’s struggle, that the tension comes not from whether or not the world will end, but how this family will weather it.
I have heard Take Shelter called a great American film. The ideas and thoughts it dredges up and explores, both metaphorically and literally, are more universal and affect all of us who have ever agonizingly counted out the month’s budget, looking for loopholes, or fretted by the phone, waiting to hear from an unaccounted for family member. What Jeff Nichols has made is a sympathetic and realistic look at the anxiety of coping with mental illness (both from the perspective of the afflicted and those who care for them), and to a lesser extent, that gripping anxiety that all of us struggle with, in some form or other, every day. The final shots of the film are either profoundly triumphant or profoundly concerning. What matters in the end, is that Curtis isn’t alone anymore; he’s found a certain measure of reassurance and solidarity in those around him.