If you have a nagging suspicion that stories about paranoia are actually trying to sneak in messages about something else, don’t worry that you’re being paranoid. They almost always are.
Jeff Nichols’ unnverving Take Shelter arrives as part of a long tradition of cinematic and literary thrillers where a character’s anxieties about who and what can be trusted tell us a lot about the time in which they were made. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers confronted Eisenhower-era fears of the Red Menace next door; political suspense yarns of the 1970s like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View were steeped in our growing conviction that governments couldn’t be trusted. The fears of the time manifest themselves in our pop-culture fictions, but few have explored zeitgeist tensions with quite the unique perspective Take Shelter offers—the notion that fear itself can be just as destructive as its underlying cause.
Michael Shannon—who worked with Nichols on the filmmaker’s debut feature, the family drama Shotgun Stories—stars as Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar construction worker, husband and father in rural Ohio who has begun having disturbing dreams, involving an approaching storm with a dark, viscous rain. Those dreams begin to insinuate themselves into Curtis’ waking life, as the people and things from his life that are in those dreams—including his dog, his friend/co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham) and even his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain)—start to seem threatening. And as he begins to believe he’s seeing apocalyptic visions, he becomes obsessed with a single project: expanding and improving on the underground storm shelter in his back yard.
Nichols creates a subtext for Curtis’ dreams and visions by introducing his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker), leading Curtis to suspect that the family history of mental illness may be manifesting itself. But in some ways, that plot element is a red herring. And while the question of whether Curtis is delusional or not does have some relevance, it’s not nearly as relevant as what Curtis’ sense of impending doom really represents.
We get a sense of that underlying cause throughout Take Shelter, as Nichols lets real-world dangers and concerns trickle into Curtis’ world. A TV news broadcast describes a dangerous chlorine spill. Nichols focuses on the spinning numbers of a gas station’s gauge as Curtis fills up his pickup truck; we see Samantha taking on piece work as a seamstress, and selling hand-stitched pillows at a flea market to earn more money. And Samantha wrestles with bureaucracy at the insurance company, trying to get coverage for cochlear implant surgery for their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). As riveting as some of the supernatural-tinged dream sequences may be—and Nichols whips up a couple of doozies, including a gasp-inducing vision of Curtis’ living room furniture suddenly in free fall—Take Shelter finds its most gripping material in the day-to-day worries in any middle-class American life that may be just one catastrophe away from turning toxic.
Michael Shannon proves to be a perfect actor for conveying that thin line separating simple survival from desperation, with his imposing physical presence, lantern jaw and piercing stare. Like Shannon’s Oscar-nominated role in Revolutionary Road, Curtis is a character holding onto a thin rope of sanity, but Take Shelter allows the focus to remain on how his behavior affects his family. Thanks to another remarkable performance by the now-ubiquitous Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help), we see that family pulled to the breaking point less by external factors than by the way a life can become locked on to a threat that might take a concrete form.
There are a few less-than-subtle stumbles in Nichols’ execution, including a reference to Curtis’ wonderful medical benefits that just about sets a stopwatch ticking for when he’ll lose them. And even after a second viewing, I’m not convinced the ending is a smart choice that resonates on the same level as the rest of the film. Yet it does add another layer to the way Take Shelter spins its allegory for the existential panic of Great Recession-era America. If it is less about the looming disaster that’s Out There than it is about the way we choose to react to it, maybe the triumph comes from dealing with it together, and with simple determination.
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham