Back in 2011, a little film called Take Shelter made waves in the critical world. Starring Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) and Jessica Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life), Take Shelter explores one man’s struggle with his responsibilities as a father and a husband. Amidst the drama, a helping of science fiction permeates the landscape and throughout the film, the audience is left wondering about the protagonist’s grip on reality.
It is this very dichotomy between the real and the unreal that keeps the viewer engaged during Take Shelter. Curtis LaForche is a simple man leading a simple life against the backdrop of a rural town in Ohio. As the movie progresses, we are let into Curtis’s mind, and we begin to understand that a penetrating fear has been gnawing at him for some time. As more and more omens seem to appear to him through dreams and visions, it becomes clear to Curtis that a terrible storm is coming that will devastate the lives of everyone he loves.
Michael Shannon is cast perfectly as Curtis, taking great efforts to relay very little information in the first half of the film. Without spoiling the movie, I will say that Shannon’s extraordinarily quiet, stutter-filled, and altogether dejected take on the character belies the explosive emotional turmoil going on underneath the surface, and it is a pleasure to see that come to fruition. Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife Samantha, is sympathetic and endearing. Her frustration and incredulity at the actions of her husband offer clues to the audience on what is and is not reality by giving us an objective perspective to identify with.
The aesthetic of Take Shelter is fairly unique. By choosing a rural setting, writer/director Jeff Nichols gives a sense of foreboding, isolation, and visual splendor to the film. Storms are never quite the same when you can see them approaching from miles away across an entirely flat plain, and Nichols realizes this – every bolt of lightning or strange cloud formation offers wonderful spectacle. This is something I believe Take Shelter has in common with Monsters, another film which had little in the way of funding, but a lot to offer in terms of natural landscapes and beautiful cinematography.
Take Shelter is not a film I would recommend going into without first having a solid idea of what it’s about. While I enjoyed myself, I had no idea what to expect going in – and I can see how a viewer might enter into this experience without fully understanding that at its heart, Take Shelter is a slow-moving drama. While the level of intrigue is constant throughout the film, and the science fiction elements do periodically spice up the scenery, the two hour runtime and sparse dialogue might turn off folks looking for more thrill-oriented fare (e.g. Moon).
On that note, while I thought Jeff Nichols did an excellent job directing Take Shelter by really emphasizing the internal and external conflicts of Curtis and Samantha, I felt that the pacing of the film was a bit off. The first half to three quarters of the film felt a bit bloated to me, dragging when there was no need to drag. Curtis’s core emotional state could have been explained quicker and to greater effect in less time. Nevertheless, Take Shelter doesn’t overstay its welcome by much, and this is really a minor quibble when compared with the greater whole.
As the film comes to a close, we are left wondering – was Curtis crazy? Were his paranoid precautions really necessary? I will not go into detail here about these questions, but I always appreciate when a film offers some nourishing food for thought to the viewer; it is this very idea that makes a film like Donnie Darko so fascinating to its fans. Indeed, Take Shelter is nothing if not at the very least a smart, interesting character study of one man and his struggle with life’s responsibilities – but there may be more to it than that.
It seems Take Shelter was written off by many potential audience members, myself included, who felt it looked like some sort of ethereal post-apocalyptic film. Rest assured, the minimalistic science fiction in this movie only exists to enhance the drama and illustrate feelings that are normally internalized and hidden from view. The other movie released in 2011 that used science fiction to similar effect was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – but having seen both, Take Shelter is easily the superior film in that does not get lost in its own visuals and instead focuses on the simplicity of good storytelling. The acting is superb, the aesthetics are pure eye candy, and Michael Shannon is a revelation – I’d heartily recommend finding it online or on DVD/Blu-ray and giving it a watch.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on the Ending – The ending of Take Shelter is something that many have debated. Rest assured, I am definitely one of those people who hates endings that don’t offer some sort of closure – but Take Shelter’s conclusion is as finite as you could want. Still, there is some ambiguity as to the meaning of the final scene, and I will be writing a spoiler-filled analysis of the ending.
A Note on Lightning – Be sure to pay attention to Nichols’ incredible use of aural and visual parallels. The comparisons of lightning to nervous impulses, garage doors opening to thunder, falling rain to water leaving a shower head, and a sewing machine to a drill give the movie an altogether unique feel and might in fact clue us in to the film’s ultimate meaning.
A Note on Noah – I can’t help but find a parallel here between Curtis and the biblical story of Noah. Noah spends much of his time while building the ark taking flak from his neighbors over his apparent insanity. The joke, of course, is on them when the rains do eventually come. Curtis’s obsession with building the storm shelter in this film seems to echo Noah’s ark, but the conclusion to this story is much more vague since Curtis never gets any obvious vindication for his efforts.