Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon
Synopsis: Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.
I follow a film Tumblr called Old Films Flicker who I rely on for decent movie recommendations both old and new. A little while ago she went crazy with screen shots and odes to Take Shelter, starring the enigmatic and unbelievably talented Michael Shannon. It's a fairly small film, and while it seemed to open to positive reviews in the US it never opened in cinemas here in Australia, so I added it to my film queue to watch on DVD.
Other than the screen shots and quotes Old Films Flicker posted, I had no real idea what this film was about. I knew that Michael Shannon's character (Curtis) was seeing visions of the apocalypse and a huge storm, but I wasn't aware of the genre so I had no idea if it was going to be a drama, and action-drama or a thriller. This probably could have been disastrous if I hadn't been in the right mood going into it, the film is very slow and at its heart is a family drama of monumental proportions.
Curtis is a small town husband and father who works on a drilling crew by day, and spends time at home with his wife, Samantha, (Chastain) and daughter, Hannah, at night. When Curtis begins to suffer from frequent dreams and hallucinations of a humungous storm with apocalyptic after-effects, their simple life is rocked in its foundations. Fearing mental illness Curtis secretly visits a counsellor and seeks medication, but as the dreams worsen and he develops and obsession with renovating their storm shelter, his family and friends begin to fear (for) him. What follows is a slow descent into madness, paranoia, obsession and fear as Curtis' visions become more frequent, while the question "what if..." is always present, lingering just off to the side, partly out of view.
Is he crazy? Are his visions real? Is he going to snap and murder everyone in their town? Until the end credits roll you will never be 100% sure which way this film is going to go. While it is primarily a family drama about a husband who is suffering from these visions, it never lets go of the possibility for a supernatural inclusion, or for a dark devastating turn that'll mess up your sleep for a week. This fervent questioning plays an important role when you consider how slow the film moves. The film revels in forcing you to just sit and watch as this family is pulled apart by mental illness. There are minimal edits and instead you watch an entire conversation, in all its awkwardness or sadness or distress. The characters progress through the entire gamut of emotion that would occur in a normal fight or moment, there are no easy resolutions, no simple answers. And while this results in a slower pacing that I typically enjoy, I respect the hell out of it.
Going hand in hand with the pacing is the visuals in this film. It's hard to find a film these days that isn't visually beautiful (especially films of the indie persuasion) but the beauty of this films wideshot small town aesthetics is emphasised because it is juxtaposed against the claustrophobic storm shelter and Curtis's dark descent into madness and swirling storm clouds. The effect this produces is astounding and one of the biggest draws in this film. My favourite is most definitely the shots with the birds swirling around the sky in apocalyptic formation (see promo image above), especially towards the closing of the film. It's just so good!
And the acting, man oh man! Michael Shannon is a phenomenal and completely under-rated actor who is superb in this role. Known best for his roles in Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon really embraced the character's quiet and unassuming nature and it is both terrifying and heart-breaking to watch him circle the drain and give in to his paranoia and fear. Jessica Chastain gives a beautifully nuanced performance as his worried wife, Samantha. By the way, where did Jessica Chastain come from?! She has delivered some of the best performances in the best films of 2011, and I had never heard of her before! Hopefully she keeps it up because she won my heart in this role. She's so fragile, yet so strong. She's taken on the task of learning sign language so she can communicate with her deaf daughter, and she sells handicrafts on the weekend so that the family can spend one week a year at the beach. She's the glue that holds the family together, but as Curtis falls apart and recedes further into himself, she doesn't have enough fingers to plug the holes that are threatening to burst.
So all in all a terrific film! It manages to balance between a couple of genres yet never lose sight of the characters and their own problems, rather than focussing purely on these apocalyptic visions Curtis sees. I do have to warn you all how slow the pacing is, but if you can handle it then definitely find a copy of this film to watch.