No film in 2011 has surprised me as much as the Jeff Nichols masterpiece Take Shelter. Not only is this just about the most believable drama of the year, but it is also a compelling thriller, but only if you want it to be. The film has so much to offer, even in the package of its tiny budget and somewhat simple story.
The film centers on a quiet, gentle man named Curtis (Michael Shannon), who works at a heavy construction site and makes his home in a small town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis, the son of a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, is worried about his own mental health in his mid 30s, about the same time that his mother was diagnosed. Curtis begins having self-destructive dreams about an apocalyptic storm that turns everyone insane and violent. This urges him to build up a long-dormant tornado shelter in his backyard, which in turn tears down his closest relationships and only intensifies his hallucinations.
In the hands of another director, this movie may have been a psychological thriller or some kind of puzzle. There is a major sense of not knowing whether Curtis is insane or some sort or prophet, but that is not the emphasis of the movie. Had this movie been taken on by Shyamalan or Nolan, it would have been supernatural and had lavish special effects, but Nichols is after something different. His visuals are subtle and effective. His story is disturbing and convincing. His characters are developed and true. Instead of being about the mystery of it all, it is about the psychological battle of Curtis.
Curtis is not a typical mentally challenged man in movies. He knows that his hallucinations are such most of the time. He is embarrassed by the fact that he has this illness, yet he cannot shake his visions. He somewhat secretly starts building his storm shelter, not only because it would cost a lot more than they have, but because he does not want anyone, not even his undeniably supportive and loyal wife, to ask questions about why he is doing this in a town that has not seen any sign of rain in some time. Curtis checks out books about mental illness and goes to a free consulting clinic in attempt to try his hand at a self-diagnosis. It is these traits that make him a starkly different and frighteningly real character. The mix of shame and conviction in Curtis is a side of mental illness that is not explored by normal movies.
Jeff Nichols, the superb new filmmaker who also directed the indie hit Shotgun Stories, has already established a style that is unlike any other working director. He has a small town setting in both of his films, and the disturbing realism is what makes the movies work. Take Shelter has more of a supernatural feel, but that is only a surface trait. The movie is about so much more. The film will leave the audience to ponder whether Curtis is crazy or prophetic, in a brilliant scene that culminates everything that happened prior to it.
The performances are in the actors’ eyes. Michael Shannon’s rough appearance sheds any sentimentality that the film may have had. Shame and pain is showed on his face the entire movie, but Curtis is a gentle man, which makes his inevitable outbursts and fits even more shocking and emotional. It is the performance of the year, and maybe the best in the last couple years. Nichols can really bring out the best in Shannon, gathering the actor’s two finest performances.
Jessica Chastain, who is in the midst of one of the most astonishing years any actress has had in recent memory, is brilliant as the supportive wife. She is somewhat oblivious to the fact that her husband might be crazy, suggesting that he go to the doctor when he wakes up in sweat or following a seizure, instead of going to a psychiatrist. Some of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie are simply Chastain looking bewildered at Shannon, not knowing who that man is or what to think. Chastain and Shannon work wonders together.
There is so much to appreciate about this movie. The final 45 minutes or so will have the audience absolutely spellbound and in total silence. The music is minimal yet very effective in reflecting the mood of the few scenes that it appears in. The majority of the movie is just really quiet and meticulous. It is sad and true. After the movie, there is a stunned feeling rampant in the audience, and there will undoubtedly be discussion about what the final scenes imply and how to analyze them, but to reduce the movie to being solely about those scenes would be diminishing a fascinating study of a man and his slow, painful descent into realized insanity and the impact it has on him and his family. Jeff Nichols has fashioned a masterpiece of minimalism, one of the best and most thought-provoking movies of the year.
Rating: 4 stars