Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Sundance hit Take Shelter is a haunting slow-burner about a man trying to weather the storms from within and without. It exists at that rare cinematic nexus of emerging talents in front of and behind the camera. It’s the type of small film that deserves a bigger audience than it has thus far earned.
In the lead role of Curtis, Michael Shannon (currently mayor of creep city on Boardwalk Empire) builds upon his past typecasting in films like Revolutionary Road and My Son My Son What Have Yee Done? to fully inhabit a man at wit’s end. As his wife, Samantha, Jessica Chastain emerges from the dreamy otherworldliness of Malick’s The Tree of Life to portray a lovely down-to-earth young woman who fights with every fiber of her being to keep her family together even as she fears her husband is losing his mind. Shannon’s unnerving physical performance and average schlub personality is the perfect foil to Chastain’s girl-next-door beauty and gumption. Together they dance through Nichols’ quiet mind-field and let off tiny emotional explosions that could rattle the doors off a barn…or a storm cellar.
At the film’s onset, Curtis appears to be a nice guy, a good provider, a simple man who loves his family and is especially attentive to their adorable little girl (Tova Stewart) who is deaf and awaiting a cochlear implant. It’s easy to see why an easy-going gal like Samantha would be with him. And it’s nice to see a couple on-screen who actually appear to love each other and seem like folks who could be your neighbors. Heck, even Curtis’ best-friend and co-worker (fellow Boardwalk Empire nut-job Shea Whigham) comments about what a great life Curtis has. But there’s something bubbling up underneath. Curtis starts having horrific nightmares about an approaching storm and strangers (later loved ones) who attack him and his daughter. In his waking hours he starts hallucinating about thunder and gathering clouds, birds in frantic flight patterns falling from the sky.
What makes this more interesting than your run of the mill “Are they crazy or is this the end of the world?” psychological thriller, is that from the first sign Curtis knows he’s not right in the head because his mother (Kathy Baker) is a paranoid schizophrenic. He keeps it from his wife at first, but he seeks help…from a doctor…from a counselor…from his own independent research. Yet he can’t escape the reality of this suffocating panic and dread, and Shannon brilliantly paints that on his face and in his eyes. Even as he seeks help, he becomes obsessed with building an expansion to their storm cellar. And as the people around him learn of his assumed malady, they are all invested in his well-being. He has a support system most do not, and his wife is determined to see him through this no matter what.
Like many of the great films to have emerged this year (most notably Melancholia), there’s a back-drop of apocalyptic dread…of that coming storm…and unlike most films that would cater to this from a religious angle, Nichols is knowing enough of a provocateur to focus on the economic aspect. People keep advising Curtis not to “fuck it up” – they would hate to see him do that in this troubling economic environment. His job is on the line while his behavior becomes more erratic. He takes out a high-risk loan to build his shelter while his daughter is being set up for an expensive surgery his insurance should cover. Curtis sets into motion his own emotional and economic unraveling…just as all those who cared for him feared…and just as realistically cataclysmic as his own fevered visions.
***POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD***
But Nichols refuses to let the audience rest on their laurels. After what seems like an emotional breakthrough and a shrewd solution to their troubles, we find Curtis and his family on a beach at rest…at play. But in these troubling economic times, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into complacency. There are multiple interpretations to the closing scene, but I recommend to let it speak for itself and let the symbolism wash over you. Shannon and the little girl see it first…coming in out over the ocean. And then we get an image for the ages…for our time. Chastain, like a red-headed freckled beauty Andrew Wyeth would’ve obsessed over, emerges from the kitchen and steps onto the porch. We see the back of her head as she stares out at the most amazing storm ever created by a special effects team on the cheap. And Nichols lingers on this image just long enough for it to imprint on our mind, as if Wyeth painted a nightmare. Maybe the little girl takes after old dad…and this poor tragic woman can’t weather that oncoming storm with all the fortitude in the world. Like Melancholia showed, mental illness can devour the inflicted and their families with a wanton abandon that takes no prisoners.
One day I suspect it will rain Oscars on Shannon, Chastain and Nichols…but as deserving as they are here, I fear it will be not yet. It’s satisfying enough to imagine that their greatest storms might be still to come. Meanwhile, we better keep watching the skies and find ways to weather our own.