Take Shelter (2011)
Now that’s how you teach an old dog new tricks.
Take Shelter is about a blue-collar guy from Ohio with a good family, a good job, and a good life. Unbeknownst to his wife, his daughter, or his co-workers, this blue-collar guy starts having recurring nightmares and daymares of an apocalyptic storm that no one is prepared for or aware of. The more he tries to control the visions with medication and therapy, the more vivid and foreboding they continue to get. Despite his family’s history of mental illness and despite what everyone else is saying about him, he becomes convinced that this is not just him going crazy. So at the risk of his good family, his good job, and his good life, he begins overhauling the tornado shelter in his backyard to prep for something that might never even come.
The downside of making a “maybe he’s crazy, maybe he’s not” movie is that it’s not the most original premise out there. We’ve all seen it before and is has its high points and low points just like every other premise out there that gets recycled ad nauseum. The upside of the matter is that it’s a proven formula that keeps people coming back because even the most disinterested of parties can’t help but wonder what the payoff is gonna be. With that being said, I’ve seen movies like Take Shelter before, but by the same token, I’ve never seen them done like this.
It’s the sophomore effort by writer/director Jeff Nichols, and I feel mighty stupid right now for all those times I bumped down his debut, Shotgun Stories, on my Netflix queue. With each new scene, it became that much clearer that this is a guy who knows how to film, knows how to write, and knows what he’s doing. When the visions are occurring, you can’t take your eyes off them. When the visions aren’t occurring, he lets his cast take charge of his flawless script and you can’t take your eyes off them either. When his characters have conversations, it’s on a need-to-know basis. They don’t beat around the bush and scream ’til they’re lungs collapse, they just get to the point with their indoor voices and receive an equally terse reaction that’s as genuine as it is effective. I love that about Jeff Nichols as a director and I love that about this script. It never ceases to amaze me how much you can say with so little and it’s so refreshing to see characters who embody that principle.
But the thing you’re probably wondering about and thing I’ll get to right now is what makes this movie a 10? Unfortunately, what floored me about this movie isn’t something I can put into words. In a vain effort to try and do just that, it was like an invisible force was sitting on my chest by the first half-hour, and by the last ten minutes, I felt like I was being flat-out bear-hugged. I don’t know about you, but that’s a rare sensation to get hit with at any time or place. See, with each new vision and each new consequence it has for our protagonist, the more invested we become in his life and the more we so badly want to believe that the apocalypse is on its way. Unless you’re Harold Camping, it’s a crazy win-lose mindset for an audience member to be in, and, holy hell, is it effective in developing a sense of impending doom and quiet terror that goes from lingering to inescapable over the course of two very intense hours. Nichols seamlessly transitions the story from dream to reality to something in between, and the desired effect of making you feel just as disoriented and concerned as Michael Shannon is thoroughly engrossing and then some.
And as far as Michael Shannon is concerned, they should just give him the Oscar already and save the other four actors some disappointment come February. What I love about his character, Curtis, is that even with everything he’s experiencing and the effects it has on his day-to-day life, there’s never a time where you look at him and think, “This guys is nuts.” He knows how everyone will react if he starts getting vocal and he knows he could be turning into a paranoid schizophrenic like his mother, so to save everyone from worrying, he bottles it up and covers his bases by trying to cure what’s going on in his head while preparing for the worst. It’s a very un-Hollywood approach to the character and it’s a very true-to-life one at that. Tere is a lot going with Curtis and a lesser man would be living in padded cell, and as far as casting is concerned, Shannon was the perfect choice to be put in Curtis’ shoes.
It doesn’t hurt to have one of the toughest, most chiseled faces in Hollywood, but even if his head was a big pink ball of Silly Putty, Michael Shannon and his all-seeing eyes would still command Curtis with a subtle strength and controlled fury like no other. When you see him action, you won’t be able to imagine anyone else in the role, and when Curtis finally reaches his limit, Shannon quickly cements himself as the powerhouse he is. I know that word gets thrown around all willy-nilly in movie reviews, but “powerhouse” is beyond accurate for a movie and performance like this. It really is amazing what he does here, and since his scene-stealing turn in Revolutionary Road wasn’t quite enough to make him a household name, hopefully this will do the trick before his turn as General Zod in Man of Steel gets everyone on the bandwagon.
Continuing with the “powerhouse” theme, the power that this movie carries is overwhelming in the best way possible, and Shannon carries it easily with some added help from Jessica Chastain as his wife, Samantha. In a turn that further establishes 2011 as the best year of her life, Chastain more than holds her own opposite Shannon and the growth between their characters is really what ties the whole movie together. Just as Curtis’ inner struggles are more than enough to glue you to the screen, the same can be said for his relationship with Sam who’s firmly grounded in reality and just trying to understand what’s going on with her emotionally elusive husband. It’s also the one element about this picture that leaves you with a moral besides, “Sometimes it pays to listen to the village lunatic.” For a movie that’s so wildly surreal in its implications and visuals, it’s fantastic how human and authentically dramatic it manages to be throughout.
I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately that have left me disappointed because things didn’t “come together” in the long run. Maybe this was karma paying me back for all those hours I spent writing about movies that left me fishing for compliments, but Take Shelter is pretty much the antithesis of all those letdowns. I watch a movie like this and I wonder why more film makers don’t operate like Jeff Nichols in regards to straightforward writing, imagery that speaks volumes, and pairing characters with a perfect cast. From the score that’s riddled with wind chimes to the very last shot that’s guaranteed to get you chatting, it’s just stunning how effective this movie is in everything it does. I don’t know if this review did the Verdict justice, but for my second “10” of the year, this sucker earned it.