Take Shelter (2011)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Once you’ve seen one apocalyptic movie you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” takes the generally special-effects-loaded, action-heavy doomsday epics and throws ‘em out the window. What he gives us is something more cerebral, something worth seeing but really worth listening to. When rural Ohioan Curtis (Michael Shannon in a sensational performance) begins having far-fetched nightmares about an impending storm to end all storms, he figures it’s nothing to worry about. But as the nightmares get more personal, and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, beginning her 2011 reign) and young, deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) become the subjects of his visions, Curtis begins taking pro-active (and budget-bursting) steps to protect his family from the peril he foresees—much to his wife’s dismay. “It’s not just a dream…I’m afraid something might be coming…” But are his nightmares simply implausible reveries? Or is he putting his family in the eye of the storm?
Nichols weaves his elaborate script in and out of Curtis’s sanity in an unforgettable, effortlessly riveting, powerful, and startling tale. Not for a second of the film’s 2 hours could I peel my eyes from the screen, despite Nichols’ sometimes careless approach to suspense. It was the little things—like a soft, eerie score by David Wingo playing behind images of a distressed Shannon donning a gas mask—that Nichols did to make a scene positively terrifying. His silences (most of which are short but frequent) are purely intentional and positively beneficial to the tense family drama unfolding.
And who better to play out that drama than Jessica Chastain (now virtually a film veteran) and Oscar-nominee (nobody was going to beat Heath Ledger that year) Michael Shannon? Chastain kick-starts an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated year in Hollywood with a remarkable performance – her genuine concern for her fictional husband is evident on the screen, and her adoration of her young daughter is brilliant. While she hadn’t yet found the discipline she would go on to possess by the end of 2011, Chastain found an undeniably evident chemistry with her co-stars Shannon and Stewart. At times, her verbal bouts with Shannon left the room so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife. Occasionally, it was just the smallest nod or glare that could speak all the words the audience needed to hear. Tova Stewart, the incredible 6-year-old deaf actress, was discovered by Nichols in Columbus, Ohio. Her performance, under her circumstances, was nothing short of astounding. Michael Shannon gives a truly inspired performance, owning his character’s mental illness and making us all worry for his character’s well-being. It’s a powerful portrayal of a man that I imagine wouldn’t be the easiest to bring to life on screen.
Kudos to the sound department for creating an entirely realistic storm (rain, thunder and all) and making the little things stand out in just the right way. Door hinges, dream sequences, and more all sound as they should to inspire suspense. It is quite possibly the most eerily terrifying non-horror film I’ve ever seen. Sony Pictures Classics has done it yet again, everyone. They’ve made a movie to be proud of, one that comes out from under the box office rubble victorious in the long run. And for the 99%, “Take Shelter” is relevant and relatable. Curtis is just a working-class dad with an uncontrollable knack for nightmarish suspense, and Michael Shannon gives us a man to root for. We should all probably root against his dreams, though.