When you combine the carefully controlled, tense, and unnerving vision of Jeff Nichols with the brilliant subtlety and volatility of Michael Shannon’s acting you get the Midwest nightmare of Take Shelter. The film tells the story of a man who is losing touch with reality as he approaches middle age with his wife and daughter in Ohio.
Acid rain, “like motor oil,” is falling onto the hands of Curtis LaForche (Shannon) as he stands in his driveway watching a nasty storm twist and inch closer towards him. In the dining room of his home is his wife Sam, played by the equally talented Jessica Chastain, and their deaf daughter Hannah. They’re a young family doing what most families do, the best they can. Curtis provides as a construction worker and Sam does crafting at home, adding her proceeds to a vacation fund the family takes once a year.
On the job site, Curtis works alongside his best and seemingly only friend, Dewart. Dewart is a practical man whose wife is known for her abrasive and nosy personality, she’s also friends with Sam. As someone from a small Midwestern town I can attest to the accuracy of the characters and dynamics, everybody knows everybody. When Curtis pulls into Dewart’s home after a night at the bar, Dewart compliments Curtis on his life and how well to do he is, “the best compliment you can give a man.” Of course right after he says this, his wife comes down the driveway in her nightgown to run him inside the house, leaving us to ponder his praise for Curtis.
Curtis’ “visions” intensify with shots of birds performing cryptic synchronized aerial movements, intruders stealing his daughter, and one of an attack from his dog. The latter leaving him with a painful sensation in his arm and he takes to fencing off a spot of his yard for the beloved pooch. The consistent haunt in these visions is of a storm. A storm of apocalyptic and biblical proportions. Curtis takes matters into his own hands via an old tornado shelter in the backyard. Much to the chagrin of his wife, Curtis wires the shelter for electricity and lays pipe for running water. He also stockpiles it with food, gas masks, and oxygen for Hannah. His world begins to fall apart, unintentionally bringing that of his family’s along with him.
One of the greatest things about Take Shelter is the timeless relevance that it carries. At first glance it’s the elucidation of a man’s mental illness and his failed attempt at remedying the problem himself through the source of the madness. Put in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would start and stop there. Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the film, doesn’t allow for such an easy out. With his keen eye for framing and timing, he lulls you with the familiarity of daily life and shakes you with calm and steady shots of a mind’s disintegration. He is truly one of our greatest filmmakers and proves it twofold with this harrowing character study.