Take Shelter (2011)

First published by Film4

Synopsis: Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Shotgun Stories dramatises the breakdown of a family man and the world around him.

Review: “It’s hard to explain because it’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right.”

35-year-old Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) keeps having visions that start with a storm – and thick yellow rain – and end with him or his six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) coming under vicious attack, whether from his pet dog, shadowy strangers or even friends and family.

Terrified of losing his loved ones to the approaching maelstrom, but also aware of the schizophrenia that led his mother to abandon him as a child, Curtis hedges his bets, secretly seeking psychiatric counselling while also obsessively expanding the tornado shelter in the backyard – to the increasing consternation of his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who worries that her husband is losing his job, his home and his mind.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) has lifted his basic premise from a story arc of TV’s Six Feet Under, and then refashioned it into an ambiguous apocalypse of the modern psyche (akin to Todd Haynes’ Safe or Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture). For, turning his back on religion, barely living within his means, and desperately anxious as to what the future might hold, Curtis is very much a man for our own times of secularised stress. The question of whether he is succumbing to paranoid delusions or genuine premonitions is, thanks to the film’s seamless blending of dream and reality, never unequivocally resolved, even in the haunting final sequence.

Arguably Take Shelter takes just a little too long to get there, but so mesmerising is Shannon’s blend of mania and conviction (already honed in Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have You Done) that few will begrudge lingering a while over this remarkable performance.

Of course, in today’s world Curtis’ increasingly irrational conduct plays out like a parable. For, faced with the inevitable, monumental consequences of economic and environmental crisis, are we not all guilty of turning away from reality and embracing madness, whether individual or collective? In dramatising precisely this bunker mentality, Nichols reveals a brand of blinkered foreboding that, for all its particularities, feels confrontingly familiar and contemporary.

In a Nutshell: An intense drama of mental meltdown and domestic apocalypse for an age of anxiety.

Anton Bitel