Reviewed by Declan Tan
From Shotgun Stories writer/director comes a second feature on small town America, another portrait of troubled family which despite its flaws, reaffirms Jeff Nichols’ potential to become an independent cinema mainstay.
Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a family man in anytown, Ohio, father to a recently deafened girl, husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and son to an institutionalised mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker). Despite money worries surrounding his daughter’s rising healthcare needs and enrolment in special education, the couple are contented, even happy. The envy of his friends (it is said to his face) and a crew chief for a sand-mining company, everything seems to be under control. Until he starts to have increasingly disturbing visions of an apocalyptic storm coming over the horizon at him, his family and the world as he understands it.
Unsure whether the prophecy in his dreams is coming true, or if his mind is succumbing to inherited mental ills, Curtis begins to build a large underground shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his family and friends.
By now, we’re already familiar with Shannon’s well-rounded ability to play a man set against society (or vice versa), having seen him play the wild-eyed and obsessive in a number of high- and low-profile roles (Revolutionary Road, Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), but it’s with these independent pictures and through building a fruitful working relationship with Nichols since the director’s debut, that he is carving out a legacy of memorable performances, and surely lasting work. [Editor’s Note: Shannon is also well-known as Nelson, the compulsive, conflicted and compelling federal agent in Boardwalk Empire.]
His is a slow-burn of a breakdown and, though the audience is treated to the usual dream/reality blur of his visions, Nichols largely deals with it in a robust, humane and relatable way. Curtis is an ‘ordinary’ guy, he tries to understand his own illness by taking books out of the library and testing himself. He visits his ‘schizophrenic’ mother and generally does everything he can to understand what is happening to him. And, at first, he does it alone.
Of course, the central reason for Curtis’ breakdown, his prophetic dreams, also works as a metaphor for a wider anxiety that afflicts those who reach a certain point where there are people and things to protect, certain conditions of living that need to be maintained. But it’s hardly an apologist’s account of the seemingly inevitable slide into conservatism, (though it would be tempting to view it that way). Nichols details the general realisation that much too much is beyond any one man’s control, something Curtis comes to realise by eventually confiding in his wife.
Nichols, with his now-emerging trademark of slow-talking midwestern characters, realises his own anxieties through his creations, all plucked right out of real life and scripted with a style that seems to align his future with that of Terence Malick, while, visually at least, somehow recalling the quiet frenzy in the first half of Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.
Take Shelter is, however, far from flawless. One glaring weakness is the unsure pace of its repetitive narrative, culminating in a rushed yet ultimately tantalising finale. The film seems to have a trajectory that frequently turns back on itself and, as much as the nightmares are entertaining to watch, they seem to stifle the story rather than advance it. Nichols uses the already-familiar language of dream/reality confusion to almost clichéd effect and, though there’s fun to be had in the making of it (there are some jarring images of displaced furniture and splattering birds), it feels like a tired, even over-simplified way of exploring these ideas with an audience. These are the moments where Take Shelter feels like a very small film not saying much about anything, apart from playing around with some substantial, ponderous issues.
But this criticism is mostly rescued by its performances. Chastain and Shannon are consistently impressive (save for some odd dry heaving), along with the rest of the supporting cast, most noticeably in the film’s turning point, a dinner scene that ends in confrontation and some over-turned tables.
Another of the film’s failings, and possibly its most noticeable flaw, is the distractingly executed visual effects, from the renowned Strause Brothers’ company, Hydraulx. The CGI is too flimsy, too hollow, and not made of the same grit that the rest of the film is covered in so that when they appear, the images pull the viewer right out of Curtis’ nightmare vortex and drops them back in their seat, left staring at a big screen.
Nichols’ film is absorbing regardless of these shortcomings, and is the work of a man honing his style, finding what works, while dealing with his own concerns. His third feature, Mud, will be the next in the Shannon-Nichols collaboration, making it a rough trilogy of small town America, which will also star Matthew McConaughey and Reece Witherspoon. Look for it in 2013.