MOVIE REVIEW: Take Shelter
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessican Chastain and Shea Whigham
With only two feature films under his belt, American director Jeff Nichols has already proven himself a brilliant chronicler of blue-collar malaise. Nichols’s full-blooded characters, all regular citizens tip-toeing on the edge of sanity, feel the intense pressure of time passing, making their personal themes of identity and class a reflection of flawed social structures. As a result, individual moments weigh heavily on the soul, revealing everyday life as a kind of constricting vice where love and hate elementally mesh.
Temporal pressure is certainly at the forefront of 2008’s Shotgun Stories, Nichols’s gripping debut about two sets of half-brothers feuding over the memory of their dead father. Here, the devastating ripples of physical violence seamlessly overlap, making tragedy a daily threat. Time plays an even more important role in Nichols’s sophomore effort, Take Shelter, a haunting character study that completely internalizes the pain of generational angst through the fractured experience of Curtis (Michael Shannon), a construction foreman and family man who may be slowly going mad.
A foreboding sense of dread is evident from the very first moment of Take Shelter, as Curtis stands outside of his house and witnesses an epic rainstorm approaching on the horizon. Droplets of light yellow liquid start falling from the sky, and this gothic image becomes a sort of heightened widescreen nightmare. Seconds later, Curtis wakes up in bed sweating profusely. Natural visions like this one torment Curtis throughout Take Shelter, and Nichols organically merges them with his character’s fragile sense of reality through fascinating graphic matches of imagery and sound.
Yet, Take Shelter isn’t just about Curtis’s slide into mental isolation, but also how that process slowly erodes the fabric of his family structure. When Curtis secretly attempts to deal with his slipping sense of reality by taking sedatives and visiting a counselor (he can’t afford a psychiatrist), his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Toya Stewart) become not only casualties of his dreams, but symbolic participants. In fact, everything Curtis loves turns into a representation of death and violence within his increasingly vibrant nightmares, destroying his sense of familial safety from the inside out.
Throughout Take Shelter, Nichols contrasts Curtis’s very enclosed experience with the judgment other’s place on his erratic behavior. Early on, best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) “pays him the ultimate compliment” by telling Curtis he lives a good life. Later, that proclamation turns poisonous during a Lion’s Club supper gone terribly wrong, a climactic public display of social and mental segregation. It’s clear the ramifications of Curtis’s nightmares have a communal impact, and Take Shelter shows the spread of doubt through the distrusting facial expressions of his friends and neighbors.
Take Shelter, a visually expansive film in many senses, should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate Nichols’s expertly balanced compositions. His juxtaposition of epic imagery with Curtis’s personal tics of anguish often occurs within a single frame. Also, enough can’t be said of Shannon and Chastain’s titanic performances, characterizations working in tandem to create a tortured couple grasping at the last tangible grace notes of emotional connection. Nichols’s mines their nuanced relationship and finds a true rarity in cinema: a crumbling family dynamic devoid of melodrama. Through the tortured eyes of Curtis and Samantha, Take Shelter sees the modern American dream as a sublime struggle to continuously trust and survive. These are the ties that bind.
Take Shelter is currently playing a limited run at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas.