TAKE SHELTER – The Review
After a summer of heavyweight action movies and flyweight romantic comedies, I don’t think you’ll find a more provocative little number than TAKE SHELTER, a study of one man’s descent into schizophrenia which creeps under your skin like a rash. Writer/director Jeff Nichol’s film is sharp, fierce, and fascinating and may just be one of the most terrifying films of recent years. There are no monsters or homicidal maniacs here – instead, the film’s horror emanates from an abstract place where rural drudgery gives way to existential crisis as an Ohio construction worker helplessly recognizes his own mental decline while at the same time is sure he’s witnessing signs of an impending environmental cataclysm. Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) seems perfectly ordinary, a 35 year old with a decent job on a drilling team, a lovely stay-home wife (Jessica Chastain), and a deaf young daughter in need of a cochlear implant. TAKE SHELTER opens with a downpouring of oily, piss-yellow rain but it’s just the first of many nightmares and visions Curtis begins having of dark events befalling him. Convinced his dreams are a sign of the apocalypse, he decides to build a huge underground shelter in his backyard where he and his family can take refuge. But following his dreams comes at a substantial price – he takes out an iffy loan from a bank to finance his shelter, loses his job, and blows his daughter’s only chance to get the surgery needed to cure her hearing problem. The nightmares drive Curtis into insanity as he recognizes behavior that happened years earlier to his mother (Kathy Baker), a schizophrenic who’s spent most of her life institutionalized.
TAKE SHELTER is an unsettling psychological portrait that contains some chilling imagery, such as an attacking swarm of birds, to reveal Curtis’ hallucinatory perceptions of the world but the horror elements take a back seat to character. There are several sudden jumps and scares resulting in Curt bolting up in bed because it’s all a dream that would have seemed lazy in a more overt horror film but work here as they illustrate Curtis’ increasingly disturbed state. TAKE SHELTER is engrossing drama but does not succeed at everything it attempts. It’s overlong and there are times when more aggressive editing might have improved the pace. Despite certain dramatic shortcomings (Curtis’s furious freakout near the end is vintage Shannon but inconsistent with this character), TAKE SHELTER is insightful and dark social commentary that takes risks, and that daring alone makes it worthwhile viewing. There’s much food for thought about the human capacity for dealing not only with mental disease but with more topical subjects as job security and financial instability. I’ve seen a lot of movies about mental illness, usually they simply deal with someone going nuts, but TAKE SHELTER is the first I can recall showing its protagonist recognizing the symptoms early and realistically attempting to do something about it.
Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichol’s little-seen debut SHOTGUN STORIES in 2008, is hauntingly convincing as TAKE SHELTER’s off-balance lead. Whether hallucinating, wetting his bed, curled into a ball fighting nightmares, or in tender moments with his daughter, Shannon has a perfect sense of Curtis who, right from the start, we see is falling apart. The character is a complete creation, a strange and complicated individual made fascinating by a sensationally good actor. Shannon is never off-screen and fills every moment of the movie with the constant agony he is in. Chastain holds her own in a smaller role making yet another major stride as a promising actress here with her warm, smart and confident work as Samantha, whose love for Curtis is stretched to the limit but never broken. She anchors the proceedings until the film’s final image, haunting but ambiguous, that suggests she might just be joining her husband on his descent into madness after all.
4 of 5 Stars
TAKE SHELTER opens in St. Louis today, October 28th at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater