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October 27, 2011

Take Shelter

Strong leads by actors Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain carry this disquieting film

By Felicia Feaster

Terror in the heartland takes physical and psychological form, but is it all in the hero’s head? This disturbing new thriller taps into both primal and distinctly 21st-century fears.



















Set in a rural Ohio of backyard rubbish piles and church suppers, Take Shelter is a skin-crawling heartland thriller.

Visions of disaster haunt family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) who often recalls the isolated, paranoid heroes of Todd Haynes’ Safe or Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture.

Curtis sees masses of starlings swoop across the sky and then fall to earth as if poisoned. Strangers lurk outside his family’s home and violently abduct his small daughter. Tornadoes appear on the horizon and the sound of thunder is audible on a clear day. But only to him.  With time the nightmares that leave Curtis drenched in sweat and afraid of what’s to come begin to intrude into his waking life. He looks at the family dog and even his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) with a new sense of distrust.

Against all logic and reason, Curtis becomes convinced that the best protection from these visions of doom is an underground backyard bunker. With a growing mania Curtis shops for gas masks, stockpiles canned goods and takes out a home improvement loan to outfit his family’s escape hatch in the cold damp earth.

Though much is kept below the surface, there is ample evidence that Curtis’s delusions have been brought on by the same real world stresses that laid his own mother low with her own psychotic breakdown when Curtis was just ten. For a good portion of this deeply disturbing but trenchant thriller, director Jeff Nichols offers a plausible look at what dawning schizophrenia might feel like. The phenomenal Shannon, conveying slow-burn emotional anxiety, delivers an eerily believable portrait of what appears to be a man essentially losing his mind.

Part of Take Shelter’s slow-building impact is in that head-swimming ambiguity. Is the origin of Curtis’s fear truly psychological? Or is it environmental? Economic? Biblical? Nichols’ (Shotgun Stories) builds a sensation of dread by offering up that question without clear answers. The fact that Curtis works for a mining company and drills holes into the ground for a living suggests some return of the repressed, or nature seeking her revenge. But, just as likely, real world stress has dealt Curtis a lethal blow. Nichols gives multiple indications that Curtis has genuine reason to panic: his vulnerable, deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) needs a cochlear implant that their health insurance may or may not cover and, as the soul breadwinner, his family’s feast or famine rides on Curtis’s shoulders. If Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining was a horror film about a father indulging fantasies of rage and revulsion directed at his own family, then Take Shelter is a horror film about paternal love. The terror at the heart of the film rests in a decent man’s growing fear that he is losing control and will soon be unable to protect his  own family. 

Near the film’s opening, Curtis’s co-worker and buddy Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him “you got a good life Curtis. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.” But as the spooky Take Shelter unfolds, that good life increasingly hangs by a tether.  The sensations of this family’s good fortune slipping away become skin-crawlingly vivid.

The film’s emotional wallop comes in its reality effect: who hasn’t at some time or other dealt with any one of these crises-- from fear for your child’s safety to economic anxiety-- and felt the earth slipping out from under them? Curtis’s hole in the ground isn’t merely protection from the storm, it’s an indication that he may be digging his own grave, yearning to permanently escape the traumas building around him.

Take Shelter features a brilliant performance from unsung thesp force of nature Michael Shannon, who rips a hole through every film he has appeared in. From the furious schizophrenic he played in Revolutionary Road to the deranged band manager in The Runaways, Shannon often sets the pace of every film he’s appeared in. In Take Shelter he is haunting to behold, but also pitiful in his helplessness in the face of his obsessions. As his mystified but stalwart wife, Chastain offers a portrait of married devotion rarely seen in film. Most screenwriters would have written Samantha as a harpy who can’t wait to flee the family nest at the first sign of trouble. But in Nichols’ and Chastain’s layered portrait, she becomes something more, fierce in her loyalty to her husband and showing a core of resolve that gives remarkable depth to her rural housewife.

In a film this sustained in its sense of dread and fear, it’s hard to fault the hyper-talented Jeff Nichols’ for a dispiriting ending. But fault him you must. Nichols appears to have written himself into a corner with an ending that back pedals madly to offer a fairly conventional rationale for Curtis’s night terrors. While not exactly a happy ending, it’s less distressing than the one you might have imagined. However, sometimes the best thing about a spellbinding thriller is not explanation, but allowing lingering questions that remain unanswered.

Take Shelter opens Friday, October 28 at Tara Theatre and Lefont Sandy Springs.