Curtis (Michael Shannon) suffers visions of the apocalypse in Take Shelter (2011)
Can you imagine waking up one morning, staring into the mirror and feeling separate from the reflected image, as if you were actually looking at some obscure portrait? Can you imagine the terror of not being able to distinguish reality from nightmare, forever living in a paranoid state, trying to untangle your mind from the impending disasters it's convinced itself of? Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' second feature after 2007's incendiary Shotgun Stories, is an interpersonal horror movie of biblical proportions, observing the end-of-days through the splintering mind of one ordinary man. And if that summary hasn't sold you then frankly nothing will...
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a working class guy living in a small Ohio town with his beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart). His existence is seemingly perfect, but he's plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, rendering his nights sleepless. These nightmares begin with a downfall of thick, oily rain, followed by ghost-like figures scratching at the widows, and then descending into a full-blown storm. Fatigue sets in, and Curtis becomes increasingly detached from his reality, much to the concern of his family. When he begins work on renovating a storm shelter in his backyard word travels concerning his strange behavior, and the line between reality and nightmare becomes worryingly blurred.
Nichols frames Curtis' life like the classic American Dream; it has everything but the emblematic white picket fence. In fact, the family's life could even be called clichéd, but it's important that Nichols' establishes an identifiable everyday reality for his characters so that the ensuing terror may carry greater weight. This could be your neighborhood. Hell, these could be your neighbors. The screenplay also does a great job of raising questions of trust and morality. When Curtis begins experiencing visions he does not think himself a prophet. His first instinct is to see a doctor, and then a therapist. One morning we sense deep shame when he wakes up to realize he's wet the bed. But as the narrative progresses he seems to become more convinced that these dreams are foretelling reality, and yet he does nothing to warn anybody. Now his instinct lies with survival; more specifically the survival of him and his family. His explosion of rage at a community dinner exposes contempt for those who have sniggered behind his back. And after all, they did nothing to help him, so what loyalty does he owe them?
Unfortunately the film really loses steam in its last ten minutes, which provide unnecessary answers to questions which will present themselves differently to every viewer. Part of Nichols' genius lies in his ability to create a constant sense of unease from his premise, where the viewer never understands - much less trusts - Curtis and his motives. One disturbing vision suggests that he may be compelled to hurt his family, and Nichols' can muster tension from this scenario because he's never given us reason to believe that Curtis isn't capable of violence. He's a dedicated family man, and clearly a loving husband, but lacks control over his condition. For me the film ends on a shot of his hands reaching for a door (you'll know it when it comes), and the final minutes undermine almost everything which has come before. That said, even though the final shot appears clearcut, you may interpret it differently to me.
The film's constant appeal is Shannon's shape-shifting face, as compelling here as in Bug (Friedkin, 2006) and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Herzog, 2009). He's one of the finest actors of his generation, and I can't wait to see what he does next. No matter the quality of the film, I know he'll be brilliant. But the real revelation here, for the third or fourth time this year, is Jessica Chastain. In Malick's Tree Of Life (2011) she floated on air, like an earthbound angel. Here she represents normality, the anchor of love that Curtis needs to keep his reality in check. Her building anxiety and concern is beautifully played, perfectly matching Shannon's subtle facial ticks. She's really built a heavy reputation for herself this year. Come November, when Take Shelter is released theatrically, I think her popularity will be cemented in the minds of UK moviegoers. She's a sensation.
Take Shelter is playing at the London Film Festival on Friday 21st and Sunday 23rd October. Its official UK release date is November 25th. This review can originally be found on Flickfeast.