Take Shelter (2011)
A Splintering Psyche or Omens of Disaster?
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: September 29, 2011
"You've got a good life, Curtis," says Dewart, Curtis's best friend and co-worker. (Dewart is played by Shea Whigham, Curtis by the amazing Michael Shannon.) "I think that's the best compliment you can give a man: take a look at his life and say, 'That's good.' "
Michael Shannon plays a father besieged by nightmares in "Take Shelter," directed by Jeff Nichols.
A sinister corollary to Dewart's homespun truism might be that the greatest fear a man can experience is that of losing the good life he has. It is this anxiety, which afflicts Curtis in especially virulent form, that defines the mood of "Take Shelter," Jeff Nichols's remarkable new film. It is a quiet, relentless exploration of the latent (and not so latent) terrors that bedevil contemporary American life, a horror movie that will trouble your sleep not with visions of monsters but with a more familiar dread.
We like to think that individually and collectively, we have it pretty good, but it is harder and harder to allay the suspicion that a looming disaster — economic or environmental, human or divine — might come along and destroy it all. Normalcy can feel awfully precarious, like a comforting dream blotting out a nightmarish reality.
What if everything that Curtis values were to be suddenly swept away? We are not talking about a life of luxury and ease, but about modest comforts and reasonable expectations: a decent job with health benefits and vacation time, a loving family, a house of your own. Curtis has all of this. He works in heavy construction and comes home to the tidy home he shares with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf.
Without being a hokey paragon of proletarian virtue — Mr. Shannon's scarecrow frame and sharply angled features seem designed to repel sentimentality — Curtis is clearly a dedicated employee, a loyal friend, a doting husband and a gentle father. This makes the intensity of his terror, and his helpless, potentially destructive reactions to it, all the more alarming.
Curtis, who lives in a stretch of northern Ohio susceptible to tornadoes, has recurring nightmares of a huge, apocalyptic storm. A viscous, brownish rain falls from the sky ("like fresh motor oil," he says), as funnel clouds gather on the horizon. Shadowy, zombielike figures appear at his windows and rattle his doors, and in one especially scary episode his living room furniture rises into the air and comes crashing to the ground, as he and Hannah cower against a wall.
Are these dreams projections or premonitions? If "Take Shelter" were "Inception" or an M. Night Shyamalan brainteaser, it might turn this question into a cinematic puzzle. But while Mr. Nichols employs a handful of tried-and-true (and therefore always persuasive) shock effects to blur the viewer's sense of reality, there is something at stake beyond formal cleverness. The ambiguity that is so unbearable to Curtis — the sense that he might be losing his mind and also receiving omens of impending disaster — is crucial to the film's logic.
Curtis is a practical, thoughtful type of guy, and his two-fold response to his bad dreams reflects this aspect of his temperament. (Dewart is much more of a hothead, and if you met them both at a bar, you would think he was the crazy one, not Curtis). Troubled by a family history of mental illness — his mother (Kathy Baker) was institutionalized in her 30s and now lives in an assisted-living center — Curtis checks psychology books out of the library and presents a therapist with a plausible self-diagnosis.
But at the same time, he goes to great expense to expand the storm shelter in his backyard, borrowing heavy equipment from work and a lot of money from the bank. Curtis believes that he is delusional, but he also believes in his visions. At a certain level of realism — assuming, that is, that you interpret "Take Shelter" as a film about a man struggling with a psychological disorder — this is an important insight into a painful paradox of mental illness that rarely shows up in movies. Curtis suspects that he is sick, and is both ashamed of his condition and determined to seek treatment. But at the same time he cannot shake the conviction that his fears have meaning.
He is hardly a wild-eyed prophet on the street corner, screaming that the end is near. His diffidence makes his desperation especially painful, and his increasingly strange behavior is made more unsettling by his generally calm demeanor. Mr. Shannon's taciturn, haunted performance manages to be both heartbreaking and terrifying. You feel sorry for this guy, even as you want to run in the other direction.
In trying to protect himself and his family from whatever it is that he believes is coming, Curtis risks making his fears come true, putting his job, his marriage and his daughter's well-being in jeopardy. And in showing the potential dispossession of a working-class family, Mr. Nichols, without banging a topical drum, points toward a social catastrophe that is all too real.
Is Curtis mad, or is he prescient? You can debate this question when the movie is over — the brilliant final scene invites as much — but you are unlikely to find a comfortable answer. The real question is what difference it makes. Mr. Nichols, who scrutinized a different kind of masculine anxiety in his first film, "Shotgun Stories" (also starring Mr. Shannon), is too smart and too sober a filmmaker for that, and in "Take Shelter" he has made a perfect allegory for a panicky time. There is no shortage of delusion and paranoia out there in the world. There is also a lot to be afraid of.
"Take Shelter" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Children will hear some bad words, while grown-ups confront their own deepest fears.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production design by Chad Keith; costumes by Karen Malecki; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat), Ray McKinnon (Kyle), LisaGay Hamilton (Kendra), Robert Longstreet (Jim) and Kathy Baker (Sarah).
A version of this review appeared in print on September 30, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Splintering Psyche Or Omens of Disaster?.
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