Shannon Storms Through 'Take Shelter'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"I'm afraid something might be coming," devoted family man Curtis LaForche
tells his wife, Samantha, about two-thirds into "Take Shelter." "Something that's not right." It's
a painful admission for the construction worker, who's been trying hard to keep
himself together in the face of near-suffocating terror -- terror that may just
be the product of his own imagination. Or, perhaps, may not be.
The second feature film directed by the prodigiously talented young American filmmaker Jeff Nichols, "Take Shelter" represents a very impressive imaginative and technical advance from his admittedly excellent debut film, 2007's rough-hewn and deeply felt parable of violence, "Shotgun Stories." Here Nichols delves into the realm of psychological horror, and makes the victim of that horror a would-be archetypal patriarch. The film begins with one of Curtis' nightmares: evocative shots of leaves at the very ends of a tree's branches getting pulled out by the wind, massively gloomy gray storm clouds gathering and looming, Curtis standing outside his garage, impassive, helpless, and then the rain beginning slowly, in big thick drops that, shockingly, reveal themselves to be the color of diluted motor oil as they ker-plop onto Curtis' brow and cheeks.
But, for the longest time, he keeps his visions to himself. He's got a lot on his plate at home: His young daughter, who's deaf, is in line for a cochlear implant, so he's got to keep his eye on the ball at work, for the benefits and whatnot. But what he's keeping an eye on instead is his once-beloved dog, from whom he's estranged after a particularly vivid dream in which the canine attacks him; and then on the small and mostly unused tornado shelter in his yard, which he becomes obsessed with upgrading. All the while the dreams get more vivid, and pieces of the larger puzzle of what might be ailing Curtis start to come together. Their daughter wasn't always deaf, although the cause of her current condition isn't revealed. It is revealed that Curtis' mom was removed from the family scene when Curtis was a boy, on account of having been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. And now Curtis, a decent, honest man, grapples with the painful notion that he might have inherited his mom's mental illness. But he grapples, as does the film itself, with another possibility: that his dreams and visions do not represent madness but an actual potential future.
It's in this realm that the film gets particularly tricky, and throws the viewer some very provocative, unsettling curve balls. Nichols shows remarkable dexterity with his scare scenes. He's clearly learned lessons from Val Lewton, Wise's "The Haunting," and Polanski's "Repulsion," not to mention the films of Tarkovsky (some of the more intense nightmare imagery could come from the Russian filmmaker's "The Mirror" or "The Sacrifice," and the deaf daughter here brought to mind a similar character in "Stalker"). However, he uses them in a way that's completely in tune with the film's Midwestern milieu (the film seems to be set in Southern Ohio). There's absolutely nothing affected about the film's perspective.
And the wonderful cast is in perfect accord with Nichols' vision. Michael Shannon plays Curtis with what some will call trademark intensity, but something more, too, and in fact I find the actor even more impressive here in the scenes where Curtis tries to rise above the madness encroaching his consciousness and act as the steadfast and gentle man he truly is. Jessica Chastain has started receiving critical brickbats for no other sin besides having appeared in a good number of high-profile movies this year (including "The Help," "The Tree of Life" and "The Debt"). Well, the snipes who think they wanna give her a hard time over this can carp as they wish; her performance here, in a part that could have been window-dressing had not Nichols put in the effort of writing it so well, is superb. Kathy Baker is quietly affecting as Curtis' quiet, not-quite-out-of-the-woods mom, and Shea Whigham is similarly impressive as a work buddy of Curtis'.
The film builds to moments of dread, sadness and possible redemption with incredible sure-handedness, and if Nichols (and music composer David Wingo) possible overplay one of their hands at the film's climax (and I have to admit I'm not entirely sure they do -- this is a picture that warrants more than one viewing, I think), they do it in honest pursuit of genuine and unusual feeling. As impressive as the film's scares are, there's a lot more to "Take Shelter" than the sensations is so successfully evokes.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.