Film Review: Take Shelter

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain give compelling performances in this eerie drama about an Ohio father beset by premonitions of doom.

Since his breakthrough in 2004 as a moody combat veteran convinced his motel room has becomes infested with aphids in Tracy Letts’ off-Broadway hit Bug, Michael Shannon has made a career of embodying various degrees of derangement. He earned an Oscar nomination as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1950s suburbia in 2008’s Revolutionary Road, and he’s currently unnerving TV audiences as an FBI agent with hidden demons on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

With Take Shelter, Shannon has his most prominent showcase to date, reuniting with Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of his little-seen 2007 drama, Shotgun Stories. But Take Shelter is no typical leading-man bid; once again, Shannon has been called on to tap into the disturbing intensity that’s become his trademark. He may never play a romantic hero, but he’s clearly carved a niche that cuts deeper than ever with his latest role.

Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a crew supervisor for a sand-mining company in Elyria, Ohio, and father of a deaf six-year-old, Hannah, with his wife Samantha. From the very opening scene we sense that something is amiss, as Curtis stands in his backyard watching a very eerie sky fill with dark clouds and burst with yellow raindrops. Soon, we learn that Curtis is plagued by terrible hallucinations: the approach of a huge tornado, the family dog suddenly attacking his arm, a car crash in a driving rainstorm, flocks of birds flying in wild formations and blackening the sky. Curtis fears he has inherited his mother’s schizophrenia, but he remains convinced that these signs portend a coming catastrophe that he and his family must prepare to face. Though Hannah is scheduled to have corrective surgery, he sinks the family’s savings into the construction of a backyard tornado shelter and recklessly “borrows” equipment from his workplace.

Filmmaker Nichols says Take Shelter was inspired by the anxiety he felt during his first year of marriage, aligned with the realization that he now had an important new life to protect. That sense of dread permeates the film, blurring the line between Curtis’ awful visions and his everyday existence. Nichols has the perfect vessel in Shannon, whose fierce commitment to Curtis and his beliefs is palpable enough to make the audience question their doubts about his sanity. (Shannon’s outburst at the local community hall late in the film is uncomfortably riveting.)

Matching Shannon every step of the way is Jessica Chastain as Samantha. The suddenly ubiquitous young actress from The Tree of Life and The Help is luminous and poignant as a woman struggling to deal with her husband’s drastic mental decline while giving him as much love and support as she can. The climactic scene of the couple inside the shelter during a storm is especially gripping and beautifully performed.

For a relatively low-budget production, Take Shelter boasts some extraordinary images of nature out of whack, courtesy of visual-effects artist Chris Wells and cinematographer Adam Stone. The film also keeps the audience on its toes with its ambiguous view of Curtis’ premonitions—up until a final scene which seems to provide a definitive answer.