Michael Shannon is stunning in this psychological end of the world tale
When devoted husband and father Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to suffer terrible nightmares of storms and a coming apocalypse, he retreats from his loving family and fixates on the need to extend their tornado shelter. As the hallucinations become more intense, bleeding into his everyday life, he begins to question his sanity.
The second film from writer/director Jeff Nicols, who brought us 2007’s Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter is part heavyweight drama, part end of the world thriller and all compelling. The director mixes Curtis’ struggle with impending mania with slick imagery and a slowly increasing sense of foreboding right up to the cracking finale.
As Curtis’ dreams start to meld with reality, he refuses to talk to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) who is already trying to take care of their deaf daughter. To others, his life seems perfect and he struggles to keep things together, terrified of destroying the family unit. This all stems from the characters’ personal history with mental illness, which saw him being abandoned by his own delusional mother at a young age.
These facets keep the tension in the film high, as the audience is subject to terrifying visions which our protagonist keeps bottled up. When he erupts, his world rapidly starts to unravel. It’s a frightening insight into what it may be like to be assaulted by psychological demons, and Nicols takes that debilitating fear and uses it to ratchet up the tension in the final scenes.
Michael Shannon is astounding as Curtis – gentle, kind and caring to his family but slowly becoming more distant and with a touch of potential violence in his hulking form. His frustrations and confusion play out in miniature on his expressive face and unusual features as he tries to hold it together. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who has already appeared in The Tree of Life and The Help this year, makes for a marvellous, caring counterpart – she can’t understand the change in her husband’s behaviour and wars with herself for what is best for her child.
Take Shelter uses subtle CG to illustrate the apocalypse in Curtis’ mind and while it could never be mistaken for a blockbuster; event movies could learn something about restraint from the effects here, and all on a mere $5 million budget. On only his second film, Nicols direction is superb and it’s clear he has a great command of actors, though there are perhaps a few too many scenes illustrating Curtis’ mental state – a shorter cut could have been more effective.
The ending is likely to be divisive – at first I found it cheapened the power of what came before but it has grown on me – but there’s no doubting that Nicols has produced an impressive, layered drama with sterling performances. Highly recommended.