Take Shelter (United States, 2011)
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is content, at least outwardly. His relationship with his family – wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) – is full of happiness, his job in construction pays well and gives him access to a great health insurance plan, and he works alongside his best mate using huge machinery to drill holes into the Earth. His daughter is deaf but they’re working on learning sign language and, thanks to his health insurance, she’s getting a bionic implant soon. There’s little more a man could ask for in financially and socially depressed America.
But recently, Curtis has been having dreams – nightmares – of massive, apocalyptic storms approaching his idyllic little Ohio town. Unnatural flocks of birds materialising out of nowhere. Thick, oily rain.
A spiritual person might interpret such dreams as foreboding visions of an impending doom, but Curtis isn’t religious (he stays home when Samantha goes to church) and he knows that there is a history of mental illness in his family. His mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when Curtis was a teenager, and he’s seen the devastating effect the disease can have on a “normal” person.
But while he is able to rationalise the dreams as possible early warning signs of his own mental illness, as much as he doesn’t want to admit it, he also can’t stop himself from succumbing to the compulsion to build a tornado shelter in his backyard to prepare for what he feels is an oncoming storm of Biblical proportions, much to the confusion of his wife and their friends who know nothing of his visions. The dreams take a far more sinister turn and he sees faceless men smash their way into his car with baseball bats during a storm and take Hannah, and he awakens in a cold sweat gasping for air. He is nothing if not protective of his young daughter.
He “borrows” some construction machinery from his building site to expand his tornado shelter with a shipping container, but also starts skipping work to see a counselor at a free clinic as his project starts to consume his life and he becomes more certain – or, perhaps, more hopeful – that he is developing a mental illness . Samantha, still unaware of his dreams, senses something is wrong but Curtis, an old-fashioned man’s man not exactly in touch with his feelings, is initially averse to discussing anything with his loving wife. As he becomes more withdrawn and sinks more time and money into the shelter, she shows less patience with him and a rift starts to develop between the two.
But Curtis has seen first-hand what damage schizophrenia can do to a family unit, and when Samantha finally snaps and demands an explanation for his behaviour he lays everything out on the table. The scenes between Curtis and Samantha – standing in the kitchen, just talking to each other as two people in a relationship do – are wonderfully tender and quietly dramatic, thanks to two genuinely magnetic actors being given the time and space to find the drama in a situation without being overburdened with words. Chastain and Shannon say more to each other with silence than most actors could ever do with thousands of pages of dialogue, and each gives the best performance of their career.
Shannon masterfully navigates the dark sensibility and explosive outbursts of his character, and every irrational anxiety is painted with heart-wrenching honesty as Curtis is caught between so many conflicting emotions that he has no choice but to learn to take what comes head-on. Chastain raises Samantha from what could have been a one-note archetype into a conflicted, multi-dimensional figure of paramount importance to the effectiveness of the film, showing unending empathy for her husband’s troubles but absolute intolerance of his inappropriate behaviour.
Jeff Nichols has chosen some pretty heavy subjects – mental illness, spirituality, masculinity, the U.S. health-care system, the family unit – to tackle in this, his second film, but he seems already to have mastered the art of restraint, an admirable quality in a director. Having never experienced schizophrenia myself, Take Shelter feels painfully true-to-life, and its powerful ending will hit you like a hurricane.