Jeff Nichols arrived on the scene with 2008’s Shotgun Stories, a powerful drama that not only earned him a nomination for the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, but highlighted the incredibly talents of its star Michael Shannon. With Shannon going from strength to strength with appearances in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, including a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, and being due to appear as General Zod in the Superman reboot Man of Steel, the duo have reunited for another gripping character piece that is already causing a buzz around the world.
After a series of nightmarish apocalyptic visions, husband and father Curtis (Shannon) begins to focus on the building of a storm shelter in the backyard of his small time Ohio home. What at first seems like simple therapy soon becomes obsessive, causing his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, The Help) to doubt his sanity.
From Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly through to Black Swan, cinema has used a variety of ways of visually expressing the state of the schizophrenic mind. Although Take Shelter begins with the kind of prophetic warnings seen in big-budget disaster films such as The Happening or Hereafter, what follows is just as much a mystery as it is a document of an unravelling mind. The confounding behaviour that Curtis exhibits, in an amazing performance by Michael Shannon, is all the more powerful because it seems real. Yet the power of the film is that his sleeping and waking dreams are also presented in a way that seems entirely plausible, causing the audience to equally doubt the legitimacy of what they are seeing.
Viewed more broadly, Take Shelter is also a fascinating study in obsession, with Shannon reflecting the fanatical FBI man he plays regularly on Boardwalk Empire. There are more than a few shades of Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in Curtis, an instead of building mashed-potato mountains and emptying dirt into the kitchen, Shannon’s character constructs a bunker. He becomes violent and irrational to the outside world, but to the audience, who has seen inside his dreams, we are left with a quandary: have we seen a vision of doom, or a glimpse into a fractured mind?
Take Shelter has a kind of a Todd Haynes’ Safe vibe, with Nicholas skillfully navigating the loud and quiet moments, giving some genuinely touching intimate confessions between Shannon and rising star Chastain, see prominently in The Tree of Life, in what is essentially a two-hander of a showcase for the phenomenally talented pair. Indeed, if these award-worthy performances don’t at least net some nominations in the award season, then there is little justice in the world. Nichols provides no easy answers for the audience, even in its ambiguous conclusion, and perhaps he is simply saying that this is modern life. Filled with gripping performances from two stars ready to burst into the stratosphere, Take Shelter is a film that totally captures the zeitgeist.
Take Shelter is released on 13 October 2011 in Australia from Sony.