Take Shelter

Dir. Jeff Nichols

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Take Shelter is a movie that literally haunted me, planting in my head images and feelings of fear and dread that kept coming back to me for days after I saw it, whenever my mind wasn’t otherwise occupied.  I just couldn’t shake it.  For me, this normally happens only with really good scary films (The Shining, The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project), but Take Shelter is not a horror movie, even if there are a few scenes that play that way.  Nonetheless, it conjures as powerful a sense of gut-wrenching dread as any horror film I’ve seen.  It does this not primarily by being directly frightening to the viewer, but rather by engaging the overwhelming fear the protagonist himself feels at what he is experiencing.


A large part of the movie’s success, then, necessarily rests on the central performance of Michael Shannon.  I first became aware of Shannon a few years ago with his excellent Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Revolutionary Road, and since then I’ve been waiting to see him in a lead role that would properly showcase his weird, precarious energy.   This is that role, and the Academy blew it by omitting Shannon from their nominees this year.


Curtis LaForche is a loving husband and father and a responsible crew supervisor at work, but he has started to experience dark things he doesn’t understand.  The birds are flying in strange patterns.  He is having apocalyptic dreams of approaching storms and malevolent figures—and sometimes he has them when he’s not even asleep.  As his visions grow more intense and disturbing, Curtis doesn’t know whether he’s falling into the same mental illness that took his mother away from him many years ago, or if these visions are actually warning him of some impending disaster.  We see him start to withdraw from his increasingly confused and upset family, as he gets it in his head that his only hope is to build a survivalist-style storm shelter in his back yard that can withstand the potential onslaught of…whatever might be coming.


It is probably not difficult to cast this story as an allegorical exploration of the anxieties of a society in freefall and/or a planet in dire ecological distress, if you are so disposed.  I’m not.  I’m more interested in just watching Shannon capture Curtis’s agonizing inner turmoil, his uncertainty about what is happening and what it all means crashing against his absolute certainty that something is earthshakingly wrong and he must defend himself and his family against it.  There is nothing he cares about more than protecting his family, and yet he can only watch as his efforts to do so first alienate and then anger and then ultimately terrify them.  He must continue doing what he is convinced has to be done, regardless of how much it is hurting everyone.  That’s a tough road, and as Curtis tries desperately to stay on it, so Shannon keeps his performance nerve-wrackingly contained—except in those few awful moments when it can no longer be, when Curtis’s jagged, terrified soul is dragged out into the light kicking and screaming.  At those moments, stand back.


Much credit also to writer/director Jeff Nichols, not only for his ambitious vision, but also for his deliberate pacing, his careful observation of the details of lower-middle-class Midwestern life, and his unswerving focus on the human beings caught up in the brewing storm.  Under his confident guidance, Take Shelter manages to be both a poignant slice-of-life character study and a harrowing psychological thriller.  When was the last time you saw that? 


© 2012 dondi demarco