Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is many things—some of them brilliant, some frustrating. It’s either a horror story, a psychological drama or a metaphor for our time—or maybe it’s all of those things. It’s also more slowly paced than it needs to be and a good 15 minutes too long. And there’s something just a little too M. Night Shyamalan about it for my comfort. It’s a film that’s easier to admire (at least in part) than actually like, but it’s also a difficult film to ignore.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a solidly lower-middle-class kind of guy with a good blue-collar job in which he’s moving up. He has a nice wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who augments the family income with sewing jobs and selling sewing craft work at a flea market. They have a deaf daughter, Hannah (newcomer Tova Stewart), but she’s doing fine and they’re coping. They live in a pleasant enough, if largely personality-challenged house, though since neither of them boast much in the way of a personality (one of the film’s flaws for me), that’s not unreasonable. It would seem that things are pretty good for them, but that may be illusory. The question the film poses is: What kind of illusion is it?
You see, Curtis keeps having visions or premonitions—or perhaps hallucinations. He sees ominous storm clouds massing and abnormal amounts of lightning. Birds fly in strange patterns, amassing in swirling—even threatening—crowds. He sees strange rain—like motor oil—falling. In some cases, it’s unclear—deliberately—whether these visions are visible only to him or if others just aren’t looking when he does. It gets worse as these things start invading his dreams with ever more nightmarish content. Friends turn on him. The family dog attacks him. He becomes paranoid about them in his waking life. Strange faceless people in what sometimes look like hospital gowns attack him or Hannah. Sometimes what he dreams has physical hangovers into the day. Eventually, he’ll envision even worse things. But it’s all tied to this gigantic impending storm, so he becomes obsessed with improving and expanding the storm shelter in his backyard.
But is any of this real? Or is Curtis drifting into paranoid schizophrenia like his mother (Kathy Baker) did at just about the same age he is now? That’s the question, and it’s not one easily answered—perhaps the film never answers it at all. He was only 10 when she was put into an assisted-living facility. His one encounter with her provides no answer, though she says dreams were not part of it. His brother, Kyle (Ray McKinnon), was 17 at the time and might know how she was behaving to see if it started like this, but in the one encounter he has with him Curtis doesn’t ask.
Whether there’s a real threat or only an imagined one is almost immaterial, because Curtis’ life is on a downward spiral, which is what the film is really all about. Whether what he sees is a portent—even if it’s a metaphor for the impending demise of the middle-class life he’s known (a situation exacerbated by his increasingly erratic behavior)—or if he’s drifting into mental illness, his life is unravelling at an alarming rate. This will lead to an ending that’s good for hours worth of post-viewing debate—and probable polarized readings. The same can be said of the film itself.
In any case, Take Shelter is a deeply disturbing film when it’s at its best—and it’s at its best a good bit of the time. I’m not as jazzed about the performances as I’m apparently supposed to be, and I was more impressed by those two scenes with Kathy Baker and Ray McKinnon than I was with leads Shannon and Chastain. With Shannon, I think I’m suffering from a degree of burnout over seeing him in this kind of role (Bug, Revolutionary Road), while Chastain simply didn’t impress me here as she has in other films. But in the main, Take Shelter is a worthy film. Whether it quite succeeds I’m less sure of. Rated R for some language.