Haunting, unsettling, terrifying, anxiety-inducing—you name the adjective and it’s been used to describe Jeff Nichols modern day apocalyptical masterpiece, “Take Shelter.” So what more is there to say? “Take Shelter” is indeed all of the above, and the brilliance of the film is that it is so understated that you don’t realize or understand its impact until it has had time to settle under your skin and into your psyche.
It is always a challenge to watch a movie in which the expectations have already been set sky high. Oftentimes, when experiencing any art form that has garnered a wealth of critical praise, I find that I am forcing myself to feel certain emotions and be moved in some meaningful way by the art. The feeling is not genuine, but rather what I think I am expected to feel. This does not happen often, but it is extremely disappointing when it does. And to be honest, I was forcing myself to feel unsettled and disturbed early on in “Take Shelter,” when the images of Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) nightmares begin to unfold. I had read so many articles describing the eeriness of these dreamlike events that I felt desensitized to them; the ribbon-like formations of the birds, the churning black clouds, the rust-colored rain. I was on the verge of a glorious let-down when a tall drink of water and force of nature that surpasses the portentous storm named Michael Shannon pulled me out of my disenchanted stupor.
Shannon’s restrained performance as the anguished everyman-prophet was the most distressing element of the film, more so than the impending unknown terror of his nightmares and visions. To see Shannon, who is 6’3, give such a physically and emotionally internalized performance was a spectacle in itself. During a particularly intense episode, Curtis suffers so viscerally from a nightmare in his sleep that his wife, Samantha (the omnipotent Jessica Chastain, and welcomingly so) fears he is having a stroke and dials 911. It is an agonizing scene to watch because of the vulnerability of both Curtis and Samantha, who has thus far been kept in the dark about her husband’s inner torment. Scenes such as this heighten “Take Shelter” from a doomsday thriller to a sensitively rendered domestic drama.
“Take Shelter” has garnered praise for being a painfully realistic cautionary tale for our own demise. Curtis’ troubling visions represent our own very real financial and environmental apocalypse, and the fact that Curtis is sane enough to question his own insanity makes his prophecies all the more tangible. But Mr. Richards’ nuanced and natural depiction of the family’s bond and dynamic in the midst of Curtis’ struggle gives the film its heart. There are crucial and surprising moments in which Samantha does not shun Curtis for his possible psychosis. In one scene, when Curtis finally unleashes his turmoil in a bout of hysteria during a Lion’s Club dinner, Samantha does not walk out on him with her daughter, but, at the risk of becoming an outcast in her community, embraces him, and the three leave together in a display of unconditional love and solidarity. At risk of spoilers, I will not describe anymore such scenes, but I will say that the interaction between Curtis and Samantha, and the realm of emotions that they can convey with so few words, was, like the film itself, quietly breathtaking.