Take Shelter (2011) ★★★½
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker
Jeff Nichol’s follow up effort to Shotgun Stories (2007) takes place in Elyria, Ohio with everyman character Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) as it’s focal point. Working on a building site to sustain his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), Curtis’s life begins to disintegrate as he starts to have premonitions of harm to his family and a coming storm. Obsessively he sets about building a storm shelter in his back garden. Has Curtis succumbed to the schizophrenia that afflicted his mother or is he preparing for what he feels to be the inevitable?
It would be tempting to place Take Shelter into the category of Apocalypse film. This genre has provided filmmakers with grand spectacle over the years, think Planet of the Apes (1968) and Mad Max (1979), chaotic, barren wastelands where survival is the only goal. My personal favourite would be A Boy and his Dog (1974) where Don Johnson’s Vic shares a telepathic connection with Blood, a mongrel more eloquent than his owner. A spate of these films, perhaps best typified by Armageddon (1998) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004), appeared in the late 90’s and early 00’s, a mainstream response to millennial and global warming concerns.
Take Shelter is quite the opposite, effectively a study of one man’s mental disintegration. Like Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Curtis has little reason behind his compulsion, albeit with a more dangerous edge due to the acknowledged family medical history. The premonitions when they come jolt the audience away from this idyllic unit set in a sleepy, rural community. The audience fears not only for Curtis but also those around him yet still with an empathy for what he is going through. This is in no small part down to Shannon who is onscreen for the entirety of the running time and magnificent in realising an unravelling psyche. This is an understated performance, a slow, subtle crack that draws the audience in. Like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) we are disorientated and unsure until the final reel where we stand with the lead, a difficult trick to pull off.
Note must also go to Chastain who adds more meat to a role that would usually be dismissed as that of the “concerned wife”. Her bewilderment in understanding her husband’s situation articulates that of the audiences. The interplay with her and Shannon in scenes such as when they go to a sign language class for their daughter is playful and makes the decline all the more painful to witness. I must also add any CGI is understated and used sparingly to delicately enhance, not to swamp proceedings as is so regularly the case nowadays. It is perhaps this that sums up Take Shelter best, a film that puts character ahead of spectacle and is all the better for it.