Title: Take Shelter
Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart
Well paced movies aren’t necessarily swift, but if the storytelling approach is more on the calculated and wallowing side, there better be a strong payoff. While writer-director Jeff Nichols presents Take Shelter as a piece that’ll rock a powerful crescendo, what we get is one that feels rather one-note most of the way through until it spikes just before the end. Nichols makes an honorable attempt at wrapping the piece up in a fulfilling and stirring way, but the jagged build doesn’t make it nearly as satisfying as it could be.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) makes a living working for a local drilling company. He lives modestly with his loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young daughter, Hanna (Tova Stewart), in what appears to be a quaint Midwestern locale. When Curtis begins to experience intense nightmares, he dismisses them as average dreams, but, when his late night visions start to bear daytime repercussions, he becomes alarmed.
Assuming he might be developing Schizophrenia, similar to his mother who was diagnosed in her 30s, Curtis seeks psychiatric help. Even with this medical attention and a sedative prescription, the foreboding intensity of his dreams consumes Curtis, and his nighttime terrors consume his existence. Curtis is swept up by the fear of an incoming storm with potentially devastating effects and he desperately tries to build his family an underground shelter.
Take Shelter opens beautifully, not only establishing the tone of the film, but also providing a general sense of what Curtis is experiencing. However, intriguingly, you’re not quite sure of the value of the experience you sharing with Curtis. For a good portion of the piece, you’re wondering whether or not Curtis is actually dreaming and then for the rest, whether or not his visions have any validity. The two considerations keep you guessing the whole way through.
You’d think questions like those would lend themselves to the pace of the film, however, even while constantly wondering what’s going on with Curtis, Take Shelter is incredibly slow. Nichols hints at a looming threat all the way through and while that’s particularly engaging, not much else is, which leaves you eagerly waiting for some grand event to no avail.
Nichols does a fine job painting a picture of this family and impressively providing a sense of what life was like before Curtis’ nightmares, especially considering the film kicks off as they start, but what drags Take Shelter down is that our main man isn’t very endearing. It’s quite clear that Curtis loves his wife and daughter, but beyond that, there’s nothing warm about him. The curiosity to know the truth behind Curtis’ condition is powered merely by the need to know, not because you care about his fate.
On the other hand, Chastain manages to create the slightest bit of a connection through her character’s honorable actions. While Curtis is almost too out there to relate to, it’s quite compelling to see how Samantha reacts to his behavior. Other than Curtis and Samantha, none of the characters in Take Shelter bears much weight, even their daughter. Hanna lost her hearing and their need to pay the bills to get her cochlear implants creates an effective conflict and she does Shannon’s character some good as their moments together soften Curtis quite a bit, but beyond that, she’s merely a set piece.
Also adding to the film’s sluggish pace and rather dull tone is the camerawork. Many of the images are rather washed out and composed with such simplicity that they’re not particularly interesting to look at. There are a small handful of stellar visuals including one that captures Curtis and Hanna running through a shower of dying birds and quite a few wonderfully ominous shots of the storm in the distance, but otherwise, the visuals match the general sensation of the film and are overly subdued.
It’s tough not to notice the similarities between Take Shelter and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Both deal with end of the world scenarios and, unlike typical Hollywood disaster films, utilize more intimate vehicles to explore them. Without seeing Melancholia, Nichols’ effort could been viewed as satisfactory, however, after experiencing Melancholia, it’s nearly impossible to look past Take Shelter’s inability to rouse emotion.
If only Nicholas managed to pull off a grander or more fulfilling conclusion, it might have validated his deliberate approach to this tale. However, after about an hour and half of what feels a bit trying, both in terms of the weight of the material and the effort necessary to stay focused, we get a suitable finale although it’s clearly not as moving or satisfying as it could be.