Take Shelter

Movie Information

The Story: A man's life starts to fall apart when he begins having troubling visions that are either actual warnings or the onset of mental illness. The Lowdown: A disturbing -- and rather depressing -- film that works more than it doesn't, and which can be read in several different ways.
Genre: Mystical/Allegorical/Psychological Drama
Director: Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories)
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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15 thoughts on “Take Shelter

  1. Xanadon't

    Has anyone heard or read anything about Tim O’brien’s novel, The Nuclear Age being any sort of point of inspiration for this film? It came to my mind immediately upon watching the trailer for the first time.

  2. Xanadon't

    Thanks for the heads up!! Should’ve seen it before now but holiday season etc. stood in my way. Settled instead for the late showing of Young Adult, which isn’t really settling at all.

    I plan on liking this one more than you did (but then again, isn’t that what “we” usually hope for?) so, yes, I’ll be making it a PRIORITY.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Good. I’ll be interested to see if your plan to like it more than I do pans out.

  4. Xanadon't

    I’ll be heading to the Fine Arts this afternoon, and might catch ya at the Carolina later tonight.

    In other news, Richard Roeper’s top 10 is out and I find so much of it so dubious that I was almost bummed that I actually share his number 1 pick. Hmmm, maybe I need to bump Hugo up.

    • Xanadon't

      Ha, well if we’re talking “best” or “most accomplished” film of the year, I’m inclined to agree. But as for personal favorite, Drive and Hugo are still duking it out for 2011 Ultimate Supremacy.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I wasn’t as jazzed about Drive as I was supposed to be. It was one of the few films Justin’s reviewed that he told me I should go see. (That may be somehow related to the fact that he gets more shit movies than I do.) And I did and I’m glad I did, but I didn’t go ape over it. It may simply be that I’m too old for it and more in need of movies that resonate with me on a more personal level — you know, like Hobo with a Shotgun.

  6. Xanadon't

    Good. I’ll be interested to see if your plan to like it more than I do pans out.

    Like you, I thought the movie was close to brilliant at many times, but unlike you I didn’t find it “more slowly paced than it needs to be”. In fact I thought the slow build up did a lot of favors for the film down the stretch and as a whole it was very compelling. I felt myself riveted to the screen in ways I’ve seldom felt this year.

    But I do think there was one dream sequence too many, or at least maybe they needed to be spaced out a bit differently. It felt a little silly. And I’m not entirely sure the ending worked for me at all, and maybe would’ve even preferred if it ended… well you can probably guess where, without my risking any sort of spoilers.

    And there’s something just a little too M. Night Shyamalan about it for my comfort.

    Ha, didn’t register as I was watching it, but I think I can see what you mean. One film that came to my mind very early and again at least once more was The Shining, no doubt a more complimentary point of comparison, even if it’s not one that’s particularly supported by the film.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I could have easily seen 15 minutes trimmed and been happy. Unfortunately, they’d probably cut out Kathy Baker and Ray McKinnon and then I wouldn’t like the film much at all.

    One of my growing problems with a lot of highly praised performances these days is that they’re often grounded in a lack of expression and I can’t get away from a certain sense that the viewers are supplying the performance. I’m starting to feel that way about Shannon.

    You absolutely must tell me what brought The Shining to mind.

  8. Xanadon't

    Well firstly, in the very first scene she appeared, something in Jessica Chastain’s character reminded me of Shelly Duvall’s Wendy. But that didn’t really hold up throughout the film. But it brought it to mind enough at the onset that maybe I began to look for comparisons that often weren’t really there to be made. Aside from the general decent into madness. Early on I thought maybe young Hanna would show shades of Danny with some sort of ability to perceive what was so deeply affecting her father.

    But the way the music accompanied some of Curtis’s visions did take me back to certain scenes such as the elevator of blood. And somewhere in the film I was reminded of Jack Torrence sitting upright at the foot of his bed, though none of the scenes where Curtis is lost in his thoughts at the dining room table or wherever had that kind of chilling power.

    And the dream sequence with his wife standing dripping wet in the kitchen played at first a little bit like the room 217 bathroom scene.

  9. Xanadon't

    It may simply be that I’m too old for it and more in need of movies that resonate with me on a more personal level — you know, like Hobo with a Shotgun.

    I’m still upset with myself for not liking either Hobo with a Shotgun OR Rubber as much as I feel I’m supposed to have.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I can see the connections to The Shining now that you’ve pointed them out. It almost makes me want to see the film again to see if I agree, but I’m not real keen on seeing it again.

    As for your…lack of appreciation for those other films, I understand the latter, though I defy you to name me a better movie about a killer tire. Come on, I dare you. The former probably works best if seen with a receptive crowd at midnight. Having a taste for trash helps.

  11. Xanadon't

    Oh, the taste for trash is in tact. And I did enjoy Hobo more than Rubber, which I found clever, but I eventually tired of it, pun intended.

    Maybe it should be noted that I watched both films from my living room, where I sometimes lose a certain level of interest more quickly.

  12. Ken Hanke

    The living room is not ideal, especially for this type of movie (or these types, since they’re wholly dissimilar). My wife saw Hobo at home and merely dubbed it “silly.”

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