A family man begins having visions of catastrophe and prepares.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain
Review by Jon Kissel
In this milieu, the LaForche’s are, in the aforementioned parlance, doing everything right. Patriarch Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a classic Midwesterner archetype, a good man of few words, not incapable of expressing affection but not possessing a talent for it. The best his coworker Dewart (Shea Whigham) can do is simply tell him that he has a good life, a compliment so elemental and difficult for Dewart to get out that it may as well be a tearful, sloppy monologue. With a home that the LaForche’s are paying off the mortgage to and a daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), whose deafness is doing nothing to impede her growth and happiness, Curtis and wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) demonstrate the truth of Dewart’s simple words.
However, despite his family’s comfort and safety, Curtis has nightmares of ominous clouds dumping viscous rain, disconcerting images that morph into terrifying ones of kidnappers who strike during natural disasters. Nichols is making a pitch for a horror film during these sequences, masterfully moving between the dream world and the real world to demonstrate how palpable these experiences are for Curtis. The car accident dream is tremendously evocative and empathetic, both from Hannah’s perspective of seeing her father momentarily unconscious and from Curtis’ as he impotently struggles to free his daughter from whoever is grabbing her before smash cutting to him waking up in bed, frozen in a silent scream. By making the nightmares so oppressive, Curtis’ actions become more recognizable, a path necessary for the viewer to recognize themselves in a self-evidently ill man.
The midwestern archetype of stoicism and individuality at all costs arises most prominently around Curtis’ illness. He approaches his malfunctioning psyche like an engineering problem with his counselor, but all she is qualified to do is listen to him talk about his feelings, an off-camera process so apparently strenuous that he storms out when asked to do it again by a different counselor. He can’t speak about any of this to Samantha, much less let her get an inkling of what’s happened after a nightmare causes him to wet the bed. His research into schizophrenia takes place in the storm bunker he’s building out, a veritable siloing off of his problems in a separate structure than the one his wife and daughter inhabit. The sparking in Curtis’ neurons or a neurotransmitter imbalance is treated by him an embarrassing personal failure instead of something completely out of his control, and he reasserts control over his life by putting his family’s financial future at stake with risky loans and reckless behavior at work and in public, the former of which gets him fired and the latter surely gets him ostracized.
Shannon plays all this at his usual setting. He’s an actor who, in most cases, wouldn’t be cast if he wasn’t building to a freakout scene, and he often plays an increasingly frayed nerve waiting for the big outburst. In addition to this being the best demonstration possible of that particular role, Take Shelter places that type in the exact right time and place, subbing in Shannon for every family man who grinds his teeth and can’t sleep for want of some kind of fulfillment of the ironclad presumption that men shoulder the burden and shut the hell up about it. What makes Shannon unique also makes the idea of him as an everyman unlikely, but he is hugely successful at portraying the midwestern stoic ideal and its subsequent crumbling. Nichols often edits the film such that scenes of Curtis being gentle with Hannah precede or follow ones where he accepts vulnerability from a man. He intimately signs with her before Dewart pays Curtis his compliment about his good life, and he gives her a bath after hugging his brother (Ray McKinnon). Giving up control or becoming vulnerable takes so much visible energy out of him and he so enjoys the reward, and Shannon demonstrates both the difficulty and the catharsis beautifully.
Few films are made on the back of a single performance, and while Shannon here is shortlisted for best performance of the 2010’s, he’s supported by actors matching his talent. Chastain is no scolding wife cliché, clucking from the window while her husband loses his mind. She is left to take charge, and she comes off as a person capable of doing so. There’s midwestern stoicism in her as well, but she can at least expand her circle to include herself and her husband, whereas Curtis feels like he must take care of it himself. The LaForche’s big fight ends with her crying, but she tellingly goes low instead of high in her gasps as the camera leaves her, an audible stowing away of this emotion instead of an indulging of it. Whigham’s Dewart is another standout, possessed of the film’s best line and the instigator to one of its better scenes. In the big potluck blowout, Dewart’s incapable of expressing his obvious hurt as anything but violence and anger, but Whigham’s pained expression provokes instant forgiveness in the viewer towards him for squealing on Curtis.
Speaking of the potluck scene, I choose to believe that all the extras had the tiniest picture of what was about to happen and then reacted in the moment to Shannon’s delirious tirade. Every face, stunned and shamed and unable to meet Shannon’s gaze, has the look of truth on it. I anxiously await Lane’s review of this film, as he’s written about Nichols’ religious impulses before, and this scene in particular feels like something out of the bible, an addled prophet raging at those who are ignoring him.
I connect with Take Shelter in the way that I hope to connect with every movie I see. Nichols gets me on his wavelength, and I’m vibrating with him as he constructs this psychodrama character study that doubles as a sociological snapshot of life in the last fifteen years of America. The gas masks are a nice touch, evoking the fear-based exploitation around post-9/11 nightmare scenarios. A quick Google search reveals that the rumors from the time, that people died after taking homeland security advice about duct-taping windows against the possibility of a chemical attack, reveals that this did indeed happen, but not in America. No, disaster preparedness gone horribly wrong claimed the lives of three Israeli Arabs, a part of the world with dramatically higher stakes than America, but one where we’re increasingly sharing a feeling of being under siege by forces personalized enough to break into your home and large enough to annihilate the life you’ve been living up until the moment it’s irrevocably changed. This feeling is new to broad swaths of Americans, but the individualism that can go as wrong as it does in Take Shelter is not. Broadening the circle of who one is willing to accept help from is shown to be the path to Curtis’ rehabilitation. Facing the storm together is what gets the LaForche’s through this particular patch. The Sword of Damocles isn’t getting moved, but together, they can at least share the anxiety of its falling. A