Take Shelter (2011) Review
Midnight Special convinced me to seek out Jeff Nichols' other work, and I was convinced my next stop would be Mud. But, upon reading the synopsis for Take Shelter, I was reeled in. The same can't be said for the opening half an hour or so of the film, but there's enough simmering tension that I rode out the storm and found myself in yet another murky mind-frame by the credits, albeit with feelings of gratitude for having stumbled upon this gem.
The film is quiet, slow moving, and contemplative. It moves along comfortably with a subtle, barely prominent soundtrack, and suburban sights are broken up only by searing nightmares that remind us that there is a very real dread we should be feeling.
It's very clear that Kurtis, played remarkably by Michael Shannon, is ill, and his slow decline throughout the movie is poignant. The character is aware of his dwindling grip on reality, and yet try as he might his research cannot save him from the monsters in his own head. There's a lot of tragedy to all of this, because Nichols makes it abundantly clear that Kurtis loves his family very deeply.
That family is made up of wife Samantha, played by the ever impressive Jessica Chastain, and hearing impaired daughter Hannah, and there is never any question of loyalty within these four walls. Kurtis' inability to tell his wife the truth is not through a lack of trust but rather an almost ignorant belief that it's for her own good. And this only conjures up feelings of painful sorrow for that character and the people around him. Because by the time things start to get rolling (though they never get rolling in the same way we've come to expect on the big screen), these characters have us in their grasp.
Chastain and Shannon deliver some incredibly memorable work when they're on-screen together. It's a joy to see them hand in hand, and it's painful to watch them torn apart by Kurtis' illness. Throughout the picture, the dreams Kurtis has are very notably connected. They prominently feature the loved ones around him lashing out violently toward him, leading to symptoms of paranoid Schizophrenia (via his own research) and more directly affecting his trust toward everyone around him.
As his condition worsens, he goes from semi-drastic actions to ones that cost him almost everything. From fencing his own dog off out the back, prior to that an inside pet, to extending the storm shelter via a risky home loan and at the sake of his job, Kurtis' successful alienation of everyone through his attempts to keep them safe are difficult to watch. This is an excruciatingly human film. There was at one point a flicker of a thought crossed my mind, where things started to seem as though they were dipping into supernatural or science-fiction territory. I quickly tossed the thought away, because that is not what this film is. As unpredictable as it is, it is predictably not a genre film.
There is a sequence toward the end between Chastain and Shannon that is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes I've watched this year (unfortunate given its a five year-old film). In this scene, the emotion is at its absolute highest, but the stakes, while small in the grand scheme that is fiction, feel overwhelming. And all you can do as an audience member is pray that Kurtis takes the right step forward, after all of the backwards walking the character has been doing for the previous hour and a half.
To say much more would dispel any need for you to watch Take Shelter, but it's one I highly recommend. This is a film of imagery and slow-boil tension, demanding precise viewing for its ultimate payoff. Nichols has a gift for narrative. His films are developing a trend in my mind, as I work my way through them. They're unpredictable, certainly difficult to define, and oddly fulfilling. Take Shelter doesn't end on a cliffhanger - Nichols doesn't bother with that - but as with Midnight Special, he knows exactly when he wants to end his films. Oddly enough, most other films would use his endpoint to kick off their third acts.
But Nichols isn't interested in going big. He doesn't need to. His is sincere filmmaking at its absolute peak.