Dark clouds overwhelm the horizon like ash from a volcano. There are trees shivering with the wind. A storm is brewing and family man Curtis LaForche stands in front of his garage, frozen in awe at a blustery tornado approaching him from a distance. When the sky cracks and the rain falls, he notices that the water soaking him isn’t transparent but rusty like fresh motor oil. Then he wakes up.
This dream is only the first of a series of nightmarish hallucinations that Curtis experiences while wrestling with his sanity in writer-director Jeff Nichols exemplary paranoia-drenched suburbia-set thriller Take Shelter. Curtis is played by the great Michael Shannon, a magnificent Oscar-nominated character actor who has found a niche playing creeps, villains, the mentally unsound and oddballs in films as diverse as Revolutionary Road, Bug and 8 Mile, and lately in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. But unlike some of those characters, who devolve into full-on psychos, Shannon’s Curtis isn’t a madman nor does he have any intention of hurting anyone.
An earnest family man, Curtis lives in his modest home in Ohio with his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his adorable deaf six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) whose corrective surgery the family is saving up for. He has a good job as a mining crew manager, a friend who admires him (Shannon’s Boardwalk Empire co-star Shea Wigham) and is an upstanding member of the community. But when the nightmares get progressively worse: his dog viciously attacks him, his daughter is maliciously kidnapped after a horrid car accident; his house is rocked off the ground. Sensing something horrible is about to happen, Curtis cuts into the family’s savings to build a storm shelter behind his house, thereby risking everything. Even professional counseling proves useless. When we learn that Curtis’ mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, neither we nor Curtis can trust whether he’s losing his mind or if he’s being warned about the apocalypse.
What makes Take Shelter so absorbing is how Nichols, who won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his work, gives us a rooting interest in Curtis while concurrently giving us strong reasons to doubt his sanity. By instilling this doubt into us, he keeps us on the edge of our seats until the climax. Greatly enhancing this is the mood Nichols instills into the picture by deliberately taking his time with the pacing of the film. As Curtis’ behavior becomes increasingly erratic, Nichols slowly reveals layer under layer thus testing the audience’s faith in Curtis.
Gluing it all together is Shannon who is miraculous as the man desperate to protect his family but who knows that he may be losing a grip on his sanity. Shannon, who also worked with Nichols on the filmmaker’s debut feature Shotgun Stories, embodies Curtis’ fear, confusion, paranoia and agony with riveting intensity and honesty. But the beauty of his work is that he plays Curtis as a normal person and not some psycho from the loony bin. Chastain too is magnificent as Curtis’ unbelievably strong wife who stands by her man even when even his closest friends and family abandon him. It’s a soulful and raw performance from an actress who has had a banner 2011.
Take Shelter is a riveting portrait of paranoia, mental illness (or is it?) and its effect on the human psyche. Led by commanding, award-worthy work from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, this indie thriller is a must-watch for anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of fine cinema.