Movie Review: Take Shelter

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Review: Take Shelter (15) / Directed by: Jeff Nichols / Written by: Jeff Nichols / Starring:  Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart / Released: Out Now

Burly Curtis LaFalce (Shannon) is a construction worker from Ohio living a simple, unassuming life with his wife Samantha (Chastain) and their deaf six year-old daughter Hannah (Stewart). The family pay their mortgage and their bills, they enjoy a beach holiday every summer. But Curtis is a troubled man; he’s plagued by nightmarish dreams of savage storms, swooping malevolent birds, rain falling like oil. When he wakes up he’s sweating and gasping for breath. Something’s not right and although Curtis suspects the first stirrings of the psychotic condition which affected his mother twenty-five years before, he opts not to seek help but prefers to act on the ‘visions’ in his dreams. Convinced that a huge, devastating storm is on its way he quietly sets about building a storm shelter out in the yard and in doing so he risks his job, his family and, ultimately, his fragile sanity.

It’s stretching a point somewhat to describe Jeff Nichols’ latest intense, brooding drama as “apocalyptic” as the world doesn’t actually end but the film exudes an atmosphere of impending doom and disaster throughout as the audience begins to wonder if Curtis is slowly going mad or if he genuinely is a visionary, a seer gazing through a window into some terrifying future. Curtis is a quiet, introverted and largely uncommunicative man; he’s an unremarkable blue collar worker, a man who can’t rationalise what’s happening to him and who focuses utterly on what he perceives to be the need to protect his wife and child from impending disaster. But in doing so Curtis becomes destructive and anti-social, turning away from those he’s trying to protect and eventually, turning even his friends and family against him because they can’t understand what’s happening and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Take Shelter’ is a film about a man falling apart, realising he’s falling apart and yet still pursuing a course of action which he knows is putting at risk everything he holds dear. Curtis isn’t depicted as mad, he’s depicted as strong, determined and single-minded, a classic American family man confused and confounded by circumstances over which he has no control because they’re so far out of his sphere of experience.

This is a rich, thoughtful movie, a film which moves at its own unhurried pace. Nichols’ direction of his own screenplay is simple and unshowy - there are one or two ‘big’ visual scenes - but he generally lets his lead players carry the weight of the drama and they do it brilliantly. Shannon (soon to be seen as Zod in the latest ‘Superman’ reboot) is all brooding, simmering masculinity, a man whose actions are louder than words whereas Chastain is a wife and mother who loves her husband and adores her family and yet fears for the man she loves when it becomes clear his problems go deeper than just a few sleepless nights.

And yet, frustratingly, ‘Take Shelter’ nearly throws it all away by not knowing when to quit while it’s ahead. It looks as if Curtis might have found a sort of peace of mind and a justification for the torment he’s been going through when the town is actually hit by a fierce storm and he and his family take refuge in his shelter. A return to a sort of normality seems possible as Curtis accepts that his irrational behaviour needs to be addressed and the family trot off on holiday to try and restore the equilibrium in their lives and their relationship. And that’s really quite enough. But ‘Take Shelter’ has to go a step too far with an ending which tends to subvert everything we’ve seen these last two hours and suggests that the conclusions we’ve slowly come to regarding Curtis and his state of mind are themselves open to question and that maybe Curtis is more than just a man with an extreme mental health condition after all.

Despite scuppering itself at the last minute, ‘Take Shelter’ is still a brave and unusual piece of film-making powered by exceptionally strong performances, a stark and thoughtful script and some memorable and occasionally-disturbing imagery. It’s well worth setting time aside for in the run-up to the Christmas blockbuster season.

Expected rating: 5 out of 10

Actual rating:

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