Take Shelter: This Halloween, A Real Horror Story

A few nights ago, I had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t shake Take Shelter, the second film by Jeff Nichols, out of my head. This isn’t a Paranormal Activity 3, with cheap jolts meant to be “fun.” This is meant to be a thought-provoking allegorical nightmare, with images and moments that linger for days. Led by an outstanding performance by Michael Shannon, Take Shelter is a relevant look at what it means to be a man in today’s economic climate, hounded by the increasing feeling of dread that it may all be pulled out from under your feet sooner than you think.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) has been having terrible nightmares. Unusual rain that looks like motor oil falls from the skies, people and animals act strangely, and ominous lightning storms loom over the horizon. In reality, Curtis works a construction job with his best friend (Shea Whigham) and takes care of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart) in a simple house in smalltown Ohio. The nightmares get worse and worse, and Curtis fears that schizophrenia, which his mother (Cathy Baker) developed around Curtis’ age, might be setting in. He begins quietly seeking treatment for his illness, but since his visions are so vivid, he simultaneously begins planning to renovate his tornado shelter into a more complex and prepared living space.

The world of this film is one most Americans can recognize. Curtis has a working-class lifestyle, earns an honest buck, and wants nothing more out of life than to care for his family, keep payments up on his house, maybe save pennies for an eventual beach vacation, and “live a good life.” His insurance policy he gets from work is pretty good, meaning the surgery that his daughter will need soon to cure her deafness should be manageable. Curtis has the same concerns every man in today’s society has, from rich to poor: how do I make enough money to provide food, health, and shelter for my loved ones? It makes the need for one’s job– and for one to stay sane enough to adequately do one’s job– increasingly important in a struggling economy.

The movie works on an allegorical level– a coming collapse of society as we know it for America and how a man can protect himself and his family– but it works as a literal character study as well. Nichols deals with Curtis’ fear of impending schizophrenia in a realistic way: he’s too embarrassed to share with his wife why he hasn’t been feeling well at night. He sees a counselor rather than a fully licensed doctor, because seeing a doctor would somehow acknowledge that things are going wrong. He checks out books from the library and reads them in private. He visits his mother alone to ask what her symptoms were like, in one particularly revealing scene. He knows that these visions probably aren’t real, but he wrestles with how real they feel– he locks his dog in a caged area after a dream in which he is attacked, and he clearly feels some remorse since the dog did nothing wrong.

Nichols never takes a single misstep. Every scene is thoughtful and tenderly delivered. The pace is leisurely and the building suspense provides a vicious slow burn. There are a few legit scares, one that made the person next to me leap clear out of her seat. The relationships between the characters are remarkably developed, sometimes in no more than a single scene (the scenes with Curtis’ mother and brother are both nuanced and smart). The reaction of the community at large to Curtis’ erratic behavior is realistic– people talk in small towns when unusual things start happening. Most importantly of all, the chemistry between Curtis and his wife is just right: being very acquainted with small-town Ohio, their marriage is perfectly captured, and her reactions to Curtis as the film moves forward thankfully never dive into the cliche.

Anchoring the film into disturbing reality is Michael Shannon, who without question is one of the best actors of his generation. He conveys a creepy unease in every role, managing to be perfect at playing both very articulate and very inarticulate characters, not unlike a young Christopher Walken. Here, he captures the quiet concern and the stubborn pride of Curtis, letting his increasing fright boil over in small doses. The scenes after his nightmares are great portraits of a relationship under strain, and an angry explosion by Curtis’ friend at a church social leads to the most intense scene of acting I’ve seen this year– Shannon goes big without ever losing grip of the reality of the character. The movie achieves the same: it manages to be intimate even in its most epic moments. I was gripped from frame one to the closing credits. Ghosts and goblins may startle trick-or-treaters… but Take Shelter will truly haunt you.

~ by russellhainline on October 31, 2011.

3 Responses to “Take Shelter: This Halloween, A Real Horror Story”

  1. The NY Times review of this said it is excellent. I hope it comes to Jacksonville.

  2. I’ve seen the trailers but have no idea when this is opening locally. I’ll be there when it does.

  3. […] CINEMATOGRAPHY: 10. Andrew Lesnie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes 9. Adam Stone, Take Shelter 8. Janusz Kaminski, War Horse 7. Alwin Kuchler, Hanna 6. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia 5. Hoyte […]

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