Drama, rated R
If your mind started playing tricks on you, how would you know what was real? If you saw storm clouds, you would expect rain, but what if you were the only one who could see them? In Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the sky grows darker and darker for family man Curtis LaForche, played by Michael Shannon. He suffers from daytime hallucinations of storm clouds as well as nightmares that result in acute physical distress. The question the movie asks is whether his visions are prophetic of a real storm—or even the apocalypse—or whether they are a symptom of psychological illness. If the answer is the latter, the next question is whether that illness is schizophrenia, passed down from Curtis' mother, or mental disturbance based in trauma. Contemporary life pressures add to the mix of possible triggers—a daughter with special medical needs, a down payment due on a summer vacation rental, an intellectually stultifying career. Other stressors are revealed throughout the film, as Curtis' behavior grows more erratic. He mistrusts what he sees but is terrified not to protect his family from it. And though Curtis seeks help for his condition and we see his deterioration and his fight against it, this is not a movie about medical terms or happy-ending redemption—it is about fear and the ways it moves and grows.
Shannon's performance of mounting panic is second to none. We can see his rapid, shallow breathing and distraction even when his devoted wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), at first fails to notice. We don't know what Curtis was like before his visions, but it's easy to assume he wasn't much of a talker. He keeps his dreams and visions to himself until he has alienated several friends and co-workers and pushed his marriage to the brink by spending a small fortune to renovate an underground storm shelter on their property. Once Samantha learns what's been happening to her husband, she does what she can to understand and support him, culminating in a gut-wrenching public spectacle. Shannon and Chastain are both naturalistic actors: they don't seem to be acting for the camera so much as accidentally caught on film in the middle of their real lives. Tova Stewart plays their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah, who is deaf. In a role with no lines, this little girl carries an enormous responsibility. Her silence reminds us that there is no cheerful chatter in the house, though it's obvious her parents love each other (and her) very much. In one of the movie's most pivotal moments, her widening eyes and head shakes are all we need to tell us what she is feeling.
For a movie that's not ostensibly a horror film, Take Shelter is terrifying. It's a tense, character-driven story, and each turn of the plot takes Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah further down a rabbit hole of paranoia. Where is the line between not passing judgment on a delusion and coddling it? Pushing someone through his fear and paralyzing him within it? Curtis' blue-collar career as a sand miner, set against vast plains of off-white earth, contrasts sharply with an inner life spent watching the sky, which is never still. It is a movie for the zeitgeist, for the 99 percent, many of whom are so scared about their financial well-being that they can no longer take part in the joy of living, ever watchful are they for the proverbial next shoe to drop and wreak havoc on the last vestiges of their creature comforts. Every secure thing in the LaForches' lives hinges on Curtis' employment and health benefits, but the visions possibly brought on by this stress threaten to undo their security—and he cannot stop it from happening. He finds some relief in sedatives, until they make things worse, and there is some solace in counseling, until the options in his small Ohio town reveal their damaging limitations. Viewers will bring their own perspectives to the movie's themes and certainly to its ambiguous ending. What you project onto the film will depend on your exposure to mental illness and understanding of fear as experienced by someone who, at 10 years old, was left in a car in the grocery-store parking lot by his mother and was found a week later, eating from the garbage. Fear is a physical state that convinces your mind something very bad is about to happen. It's supposed to help us know when to get out of sticky situations. But when all your situations are sticky, you're afraid all the time. Fear is also catching, like the flu. Take Shelter asks a lot from its viewers, particularly patience through a long, paced story and tolerance for their own reflected anxieties. It's worth it.
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 12/02/2011