REVIEW: Take Shelter [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: September 30th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Jeff Nichols
Writer(s): Jeff Nichols

“I just need you to believe me”

An old co-worker of mine once told me about a story idea of his. With so many people on Bluetooth as they walk the streets ‘talking to themselves’, he wanted to craft a tale about those fringe eccentrics strolling about in conversation without the technology cradled in their ear. What if these vagrants weren’t crazy but in fact have their brains open to wavelengths from the future? What if they are engaged in discourse with people speaking through the fabric of time and space, driven insane by the impossibility of it and helpless to find silence? It was the type of highbrow science fiction that I believe could work if honed correctly, but what interested me the most was the concept of insanity being relative. Without knowing what’s going on inside a person’s mind, who are we to judge whether they are truly losing it?

Insanity is bred from the manmade construct of normalcy—being able to coherently engage in society and emotionally evolve without the pressures of stress, change, and fear crippling you. But when you look through history at geniuses like John Forbes Nash, Jr., insanity could open your mind to the abstract and magnificent; and in mysticism voices are seen as the spirit world warning and connecting from a different plane of existence. As far as a small town in Ohio goes, however, the fracture of one man’s ability to cope with the people surrounding him is a devastating development. For Curtis LaForche, visions of dark storm clouds, oily brown-tinged rain, unrelenting electrical streams pulsing through the sky, and the dissemination of malicious intent into those caught in its wake irrevocably remove him from our notion of sane.

Living inside the world filmmaker Jeff Nichols has created, the title Take Shelter begins to possess multiple layers of meaning. Physically: LaForche (Michael Shannon) becomes overtaken by the need to rebuild his family’s tornado shelter, the nightmares cultivating a sense of danger he cannot shake. Figuratively: Curtis must shield himself from his mind, the possibility of deteriorating into schizophrenia not new since his mother was lost to the disease at the same age he is now. Emotionally: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) must decide whether the familial bond they share is stronger than the fear building and threatening to separate them as their patriarch becomes more and more unstable. And above all is the notion that such struggle necessitates the LaForche family to actually move closer, taking shelter in each other’s warmth. What could feel safer than the embrace of those you love?

Nichols brings up many universal ideas. We all strive to sustain a way of living to work for all those under our roof. The LaForches are like any other family—getting by and praying to find the means to do better. As co-worker and friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) says, Curtis is doing it right. He has a beautiful, caring wife; a smart daughter overcoming a handicap to exist in a world that can hear; and a place in the community with a home for which to be proud. But no matter how idyllic life may seem, we can never anticipate or prepare for the cracks that will inevitably open up to consume us. We become privy to the hopes and aspirations of the LaForches in order to understand just how devastating what follows truly is. Through Curtis’s descent into paranoia, this loving family risks being torn apart.

Snippets at the start—a bit leading in the script’s orchestration—allude to the want of a Cochlear Implant for Hannah, Curtis’s health insurance giving them the opportunity to do so, and a yearly vacation to Myrtle Beach hinging on a tin can of money growing each weekend. All these things are attainable and for all intents and purposes a foregone conclusion. Sadly, however, along with the escalating horrors of apocalyptic clouds and the frightening rage its rain gives those it showers comes the unbearable fear of them being premonitions. The threat of the storm doesn’t shake Curtis to the core; it’s his inability to survive with those he loves. The line between fantasy and reality blurs—if his dog attacks him, a mysterious figure kidnaps his daughter, and Dewart slices into him with a pickaxe through dream, what’s to stop those events from happening with eyes opened?

Through deliberate pacing, beautiful cinematography, a chillingly resonate score with precision crescendos and staccatos, and two of the year’s best performances, Take Shelter will captivate in its slow burn before dragging you into its inescapably hellish atmosphere at its end. Dream and life cut together more smoothly with each progression, disorienting the audience into never knowing whether the storm seen is real. Like Shannon’s calculated realization of Curtis, the film itself compresses its coil of malicious release in wait for its breaking point. We see Shannon forcing his fear back—the struggle of its need for escape wrestling in his eyes—and find ourselves equally relieved and horrified when it’s unleashed on the community in a bellow of threatening declarations. It’s a moment that will make or break the film as well as Chastain’s Samantha who may not be strong enough to stand by her man.

But this instance is only the beginning of the end as nightmare spills over and we become trapped in Curtis’s indecision. Should he believe what he hears or his wife and child’s assurances of safety? The shelter in his backyard becomes a room of salvation for both his mind and body, but we don’t know which will leave it until the choice of survival and acceptance of his disease is made. Questions are raised and answers are left to our own opinions and interpretations. It’s a journey that causes us to look inside ourselves and discover how far we’d allow our minds to dissolve before losing trust. Sanity is pitted against insanity, both possessing unknown definitions. A wonderfully nuanced depiction of psychological destruction becomes a story about faith, love, and the lengths we’re willing to go in order to keep them safe.

[1] Left to Right: Michael Shannon as Curtis and (back to camera) Tova Stewart as Hannah. Photo by Grove Hill Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Jessica Chastain as Samantha. Photo by Scott Gardner, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Michael Shannon as Curtis. Photo by Grove Hill Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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