"A textbook example of how to use every element of a film."
The plot of Take Shelter is straightforward enough: A man fears a catastrophe is coming and strives to protect his family from it. Yet the film's meaning -- what it's really "about" -- is open to interpretation. Is it about marital communication? The nature of fear? The line between mental illness and religious faith? Sure! All of that! And more, probably.
This sophomore effort by Shotgun Stories writer-director Jeff Nichols is a textbook example of how to use every element of a film -- from the acting to the editing, from the camera placement to the sound design -- to create a particular feeling. It's ambiguous enough to allow for different readings, but engrossing as a drama regardless of interpretation.
The never-not-interesting Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a Midwestern working-class man with a loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a 6-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. The plan is to get cochlear implants for her, though the procedure is expensive, and insurance coverage is a nightmare. In the meantime, the whole family is learning sign language (the film's first indicator that communication is a key theme).
Seemingly out of the blue, Curtis starts to have vivid nightmares about him or his family being harmed. The weather plays a major part in these premonitions, and Curtis becomes obsessed with fortifying the backyard storm cellar, convinced that a devastating storm is imminent.
Crucially, Curtis doesn't share the extent of his fears with Samantha. Their relationship suffers because of it, and his efforts to find help elsewhere fail. Painfully aware that his own mother (Kathy Baker) suffered from mental illness, Curtis recognizes that his obsession could be a sign of that, too. But whether the premonitions of doom are real or whether he's just crazy, either way: it's terrifying.
Nichols masterfully, patiently creates an aura of unease, the sense that we are experiencing the ominous calm before the storm, literally and figuratively. Dark skies and forlorn landscapes fill the frame; the camera often moves toward Curtis, isolating him, intensifying our empathy.
Shannon's performance and Nichols' direction are the film's greatest assets. Together, they draw us into Curtis' mindset, letting us feel what he feels (which is usually dread). With its uncertain resolution and lack of concrete answers, this may be the kind of movie that's easier to admire than enjoy. Whatever you make of it, though, it's gripping.
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Eric D. Snider (website) will be in the storm cellar if you need him.