Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols
Produced by Tyler Davidson & Sophia Lin
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 120 min. Rated R
With Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart, Katy Mixon, Ray McKinnon & Kathy Baker
Take Shelter is about as American a film as you’ll see—its hero, an Ohio working-class family, and its villain, an adjustable-rate home improvement loan. The stony Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a Midwestern everyman in charge of a modest construction crew, a modest ranch-style home, and his modest single-child family. When he begins to show symptoms of a congenital disorder—paranoid schizophrenia—Curtis decides how best to protect his wife and hearing-impaired daughter from the immense apocalyptic storm he has seen approaching in his dreams, and sometimes even in waking hallucinations. (The way a man best takes care of his family is at the heart of this story.) His priorities become incongruously divided between fantasy and reality. He builds an expensive new storm shelter which the family can ill afford, while at the same time exploring treatment options, knowing deep down that his fear might be a delusional.
Jessica Chastain plays Samantha, Curtis’s remarkable wife. For a film about what it means to be the man of the house, Samantha is refreshingly present. She shifts between disciplinarian and supporter as needed, and represents the best of what it means to love someone unconditionally while at the same time speaking the voice of reason. Director Jeff Nichols has worked very well both here and on his first film (2007’s Shotgun Stories) with the rising star Michael Shannon, but it’s also clear he and Chastain were on the same page at nearly every moment in Take Shelter. Watch for one of Curtis’s breakdowns late in the film, when instead of running in horror, Samantha hugs him close. It will break your heart.
There are similar moments throughout Take Shelter. It’s a highly emotional movie. The sophomore writer and director designs this slow burner to look and sound like a suspense movie, but it’ll genuinely surprise you with its many touching moments. In fact, the film is also about having a sensitive side—being vulnerable. For Curtis to overcome this affliction, he’ll need to admit he has a weakness, not an easy thing for a hardheaded American man to do.
Public life is the hardest to deal with. At home, Samantha’s support has a calming, benevolent effect and aids in his recovery, so much so that Nichols’s conclusion actually proposes love as a therapeutic force. In the community and at work, though, Curtis is without a net. When it affects his relationship with his loyal but misunderstanding friend and coworker, Dewart (the talented if overacting Shea Whigham), or with his older brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), we notice a new side of Curtis. As Kyle puts it, to be a man is to, “take care of your business,” and to ask for help is to admit inability. And in a community that doesn’t look after its own, whether through fear or misunderstanding, those without a net are in danger of a hard fall.
See this for its emotional content, for its fine performances, and for its attention to an aspect of daily life that’s not often discussed. As Curtis finds out, whether it’s a great storm or a world of difficulty being a man in modern society, there will always be uncertainty ahead. Something is always approaching, and the choices we make in preparing for it define our character.