Take Shelter: The Storm is Threatening

by Ethan Alter September 30, 2011 4:23 pm
<i>Take Shelter</i>: The Storm is Threatening

Writer/director Jeff Nichols' first feature, Shotgun Stories, ranks as one of the finest filmmaking debuts of the past decade. Now, following an acclaimed run on the festival circuit, his second effort Take Shelter blows into theaters and instantly jumps to the top of the list of 2011's very best films. A family drama, a psychological horror story and a rich character study all rolled into one, Take Shelter is a beautifully assured work of art that doubles as an up-to-the-minute portrait of the country's mood. When future generations study this specific period in American history, this film will function as an evocative look at the Way We Lived Then.

At its core, Take Shelter is a contemporary re-telling of the Noah's Ark myth. In place of the ship-builder of Biblical lore, we have blue-collar working man Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), who holds down a good, reliable job at a sand-mining company in small-town Ohio that pays for the modest home he shares with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf six-year-old daughter, whose medical care is covered by her dad's decent benefits package. But while outwardly his life seems content, inside Curtis is deeply troubled by a series of dreams that visit him in the dead of night, dreams of an impending apocalyptic storm while faceless figures that try to steal his daughter away. Although he's not a religious man, he can't escape the feeling that these visions are telling him to do something. Instead of building an enormous ark, Curtis turns his attention towards the storm cellar that lies ignored in the family's backyard. Taking out a bank loan that he can't afford and borrowing equipment from his employer (which is definitely not in the company handbook), he proceeds to turn the bare-bones shelter into a fully-stocked underground refuge that his family can live in should the cataclysm he's dreamed of come to pass. In the process though, he alienates his friends and co-workers and pushes his formerly rock-solid marriage to the breaking point. There's another wrinkle too: Curtis' mother is a diagnosed schizophrenic and it's entirely possible that the same condition that consumed her mind is now visiting itself upon her son...

Another, more ordinary movie would have made the "Is he crazy or isn't he?" question the story's driving hook, but Nichols studiously avoids that gimmick, grounding the narrative instead in the beautifully observed and acted relationship between Curtis and Samantha. Shannon is perhaps best known for playing creeps and oddballs in films like Bug and Revolutionary Road (he's also been tapped to fill Terrence Stamp's shoes as General Zod in the new Superman flick, which is just perfect casting), but he easily casts off that persona here, perfectly capturing all of his character's virtues and flaws. Meanwhile, the suddenly ubiquitous Chastain continues her run of remarkable performances -- indeed, Samantha may be her finest creation and that's saying something considering how terrific she was in The Tree of Life and The Debt earlier this year.

More than anything, Take Shelter is about the hopes and fears of the modern American family trying to make its way in an uncertain, volatile present. Curtis' visions of impending disaster echo the pessimism that seems to register in every national poll and his precarious financial situation comes straight out of the daily headlines. But more than losing his home or his job, what really scares him is that whatever's coming will sweep away the two people he loves the most. This notion is driven home in what may be the most chilling scenes I've seen in any movie this year. In one of his dreams, Curtis enters his kitchen and sees a dripping wet Samantha staring blankly at him, no flicker of recognition in her eyes. Then, she glances over at a knife that rests on the counter within easy reach and slowly, deliberately turns her gaze back to him. In that moment, these lovers, these partners in life are total strangers to each other, together and yet entirely alone as the storm rages outside their window, threatening to drown the world.

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