Here’s something you don’t often get at the movies: genuine surprise. Take Shelter, however, offers plenty, not just in its story, but also in the idea that a deliberately paced family drama can entertain while serving up liberal doses of economic allegory and psychological thriller.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a happily married father who manages a heavy equipment crew in a small Ohio town. His daughter is deaf and needs a cochlear implant; his wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain), sews and sells her creations on the weekends to save up for a summer trip to Myrtle Beach, SC.
Unfortunately, literal and figurative clouds rise on Curtis’ horizon. He dreams of torrential storms, tornadoes and rain “like fresh motor oil.” In those dreams—nightmares, really—family, friends, strangers and even his dog attack him.
The dreams are worrisome, but when he begins having visions while awake—enormous flocks of birds descend on him; giant thunderclaps come from out of nowhere—he worries about his family history of mental illness.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols never spells out whether Curtis is suffering from mental illness or having genuine visions of a coming apocalypse. Take Shelter could be the story of a man cracking up as he sinks into schizophrenia, or it could be a story of a sane man who’s having real visions. Curtis treats the possibilities with equal weight, reading up on schizophrenia, seeing his family doctor and going to a counselor to discuss his problem.
He also starts building out the storm shelter—a small and dank subterranean structure that he improves by adding a trailer with plumbing and electricity—in his backyard.
Shannon portrays Curtis as a kind, thoughtful man with reservations about his own behavior. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but uses his expressive mouth and wide-set eyes to great advantage.
Rounding out the family drama is Chastain as Curtis’ wife and Tova Stewart as his daughter. Sam is intuitive and smart, offering quick, thoughtful responses to each new challenge Curtis throws at her. Nichols’ script sidesteps Midwestern caricature, and Chastain deftly brings out Sam’s empathy and intelligence.
Even as Curtis flirts with financial disaster—the result of either a slow economy or Curtis’ increasingly erratic behavior—Sam struggles to keep herself together while trying to decide what’s best for her and for their daughter.
The story’s only misstep comes when the movie needs a powerful moment to keep it moving. Nichols uses Curtis’ thinly drawn friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham), as kindling for the fire raging in Curtis’ head. Thankfully, Shannon puts his considerable talent to work in the confrontation-in-front-of-the-entire-town scene you’ve seen before.
“Listen up!” he shouts. “There is a storm coming like nothing you have ever seen.”
You can feel how this guy’s life is being torn apart not just by the dreams and visions, but by the stress of everyday middle-class life.
Written and directed by
With Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain,
Tova Stewart and Shea Whigham