Curtis LaFoche (Michael Shannon) has a good life. He has a loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful, deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), and a fine home. That is until he starts having troubling dreams about a cataclysmic storm and he becomes obsessed with building an underground bunker to protect his family when they have to “Take Shelter.”
This film about prophesies, dreams, hallucinations and mental illness is a neatly told story that has Curtis having his nightmares and battling the possibility that he is taking after his mother, who was diagnosed, when she was Curtis’s age, with schizophrenic paranoia. His vivid dreams are latent with the threat of pending doom, both from the storms of his nightmares and from those around him. Even his wife Samantha is an object of his increasing paranoia, reinforcing Curtis’s fear that like mother, like son.
Michael Shannon gives some serious pathos to his Curtis as both he and we do not know if he is crazy or not. His dreams grow increasingly disturbing where those in his life appear in his nightmares and threaten the dreaming Curtis. This spurs him, when he opens up an old storm shelter on their property, to update the shelter – including electricity and plumbing – for the apocalyptic events Curtis knows are coming. This obsession puts him and his family in financial and, more importantly, emotional jeopardy and he risks losing everything.
Shannon’s serious and taciturn character is well supported, especially by Jessica Chastain as the loving, strong-willed wife, Samantha. Her fears that Curtis is having nervous breakdown are exacerbated when their health insurance – which will pay for Hannah’s expensive Cochlear ear implant – is endangered because of his strange, unexplained behavior. The possibility of the supernatural is tempered by life’s day-to-day needs and is personified by Samantha. Shea Whigham gives credence to his character Dewart, Curtis’s best friend who is also concerned by his bizarre behavior. This is, though, Michael Shannon’s movie.
The filmmakers do a solid job with the production of the ominous storms in Curtis’s dreams. There is a bit of “The Shining” with his nightmares, especially when Samantha enters them. Is Curtis a prophet or is he just crazy? The script, by tyro director Jeff Nichols, does a good job keeping you guessing and still surprises you in the end. “Take Shelter” combines psychological thriller with the mystical and maintains its focus on the mind of Curtis. I give it a B.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire') has a good job as a crew chief in a small town in Ohio. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain, "The Help"), sews and embroiders for a weekend flea market to finance their yearly Myrtle Beach rental and is thrilled by the news that Curtis's healthcare benefits will cover the cochlear implant they want for their six year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). But the solid family life of the LaForches begins to teeter when Curtis becomes convinced that the nightmares he's been having either mean he's inherited his mother's schizophrenia or foretell the coming of a storm like none that has ever been experienced in "Take Shelter."
Writer/director Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories") captures the zeitgeist of today's United States with his second film. Paying bills, keeping one's home, healthcare, eldercare, community and even climate change are all crucial to daily life for the LaForches. So when Curtis begins to have dreams which implicate those he trusts the most, his state of anxiety is threefold and his withdrawal, first from his own dog, then his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham, HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire'), have dire implications. In addition to its literal meaning, the film's title can just as easily refer to the LaForche marriage, as Curtis realizes eventually that he must bring his wife into his deepest, darkest fears.
Nichols has a knack for taking the ordinary and twisting it into terror. The wide open spaces around the Laforches' tidy little ranch make it vulnerable, as does Hannah's inability to hear. Curtis's dreams always begin with storms clouds brewing in the distance, a natural occurrence in his part of the country, before they turn freaky, with heavy, oily rains that mask glimpses of threatening individuals. When Curtis goes to visit his mother (Kathy Baker, "Machine Gun Preacher"), she's huddling in her assisted living quarters, in a head space that may turn literal for her son.
And yet "Take Shelter" isn't wholly satisfying. Curtis makes too many risky moves for a man who is on the fence about his own sanity and his best friend is too quick to turn on him. Shannon's intense here, as he is in many of his roles, but it's Jessica Chastain who really promotes the film's anxiety - he may be having nightmares, but she's seeing her real world dreams crushed within a financial maelstrom, and the way the actress expresses frustration mixed with love is strong and true. The film's ending is an astonishing visual (CGI effects are hit or miss overall), but the characters' reaction to it is odd at best. Still, Jeff Nichols gets a lot right with "Take Shelter" - the feelings of shame and guilt which can consume us when we let loved ones down, the rituals of small town life and the undervaluing of American labor. Of all the apocalyptic visions in cinema this year, "Take Shelter" may be the most fatalistic.
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