The sophomore effort of writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), Take Shelter calls to mind the story of Noah, only to repaint the biblical hero as a paranoid schizophrenic. It begins when a Middle American family man named Curtis LaForche, played with ground-shaking intensity by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), becomes convinced that an apocalyptic storm is just beyond the horizon and is compelled to take drastic action in order to save his family.
Early scenes around the kitchen table demonstrate the relative contentment within the LaForche household. Curtis has a steady job managing a construction site, while his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain; The Tree of Life) makes hand-sewn crafts to sell at a weekend market. Their pre-school aged daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) is deaf, but an upcoming operation aims to restore her hearing. There is love in this family; real, tender, easy-going love. But the threads begin unwind once Curtis starts to suffer from intense nightmares and hallucinations. Fearing that the same mental illness that consumed his mother in her thirties has begun to affect him, he hides his paranoia from his friends and family, and becomes obsessed with expanding the hurricane shelter in his backyard.
The dream sequences in Take Shelter are reminiscent of the very best kind of psychological horror films, as Nichol’s combines sights and sounds to create a climate of suffocating tension. Eerie images of oily rain and darkening thunder clouds fill Curtis’ head, and as his mind deteriorates further, the hallucinations turn violent — first his dog attacks him, then it’s people. The sublime score by David Wingo combines low strings and what sounds like wind chimes, as if the music is signalling the approaching storm.
Unfortunately, Nichols’ changes tact after the opening act, scaling back the nightmares to focus more on the family drama. There’s subtext in spades, as the film discusses not just mental illness, but also climate change, faith, economics and the American healthcare system. But the drop-off in intensity is noticeable, and the low-key narrative is not always enough to hold your attention when the atmosphere ceases to build. That said, when the climax touches ground it is nothing short of spectacular, and rocks the picture with hurricane force.
Speaking of force, Michael Shannon has never been better. At one point Curtis mentions how he was raised by his father, and it is clear that he has inherited the typical male inability to express his feelings. When the delusions start, the terror and desperation is present in his eyes even as he tries to mask it with stoicism and deceit. As Curtis’ paranoia increases, Shannon’s performance grows grander and grander, before exploding in a whirlwind of fear, frustration and rage. As a counter point to Curtis’ maleness, Jessica Chastain plays Samantha with maternal understanding and steady determination. Between her work in The Tree of Life, The Help and now Take Shelter, there is little doubt that the heretofore unknown Chastain is one of the great discoveries of 2011.
But while Take Shelter is a marvellously composed film, it is also one that holds you at a distance. You are asked to admire the craft; to appreciate the immaculate framing, the beautiful music, the thought-provoking metaphor and the career best performances. But the amalgamation of these qualities never comes close to the sum total of its parts, and as a result the film is rarely as compelling or capable of conjuring the same emotion of a Black Swan or Shutter Island. To be fair Nichols isn’t trying to make those films, but at times I wish he had been. Those films grip you on a visceral level, one that the clinical Take Shelter simply does not equal.
Take Shelter is playing at the Mercury Cinema, Adelaide as part of the Summer Scoops Festival. For more information, visit their website.
(This review was originally posted on Oct 23, 2011.)
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