In an educated world, it’s rare that something inexplicable happens. And if something does happen that is beyond the ken of the individual, it’s easy enough to visit a library or hop online to consult the wealth of knowledge of the group. What does the individual do, however, if the answer can’t be found or if the accepted answer is incorrect? Take Shelter explores that question, taking a Noah’s Ark premise and applying it to a present day world, touching on strong themes like ostracism and mental illness as well as conviction and family ties. Yet, the film is also surprisingly short on religious references.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his family live in a rural part of Ohio and lead average lives. Curtis works a blue collar job while his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), stays at home, working in fabric and selling her creations at the local swap meet. She also takes care of their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. The family hopes to save enough money to afford a pricy cochlear implant for Hannah through Curtis’ employer-provided medical insurance. Their plans change when Curtis begins experiencing extremely vivid nightmares involving a storm that somehow turns his friends, family and pets against him. He becomes convinced that he should build a storm shelter on his property that can survive the oncoming disaster, risking his job, his marriage and his family’s future in the effort. Worse yet is the fact that his history of mental illness raises grave doubts that his concerns are grounded in anything resembling reality.
Take Shelter is a wonderful concept that’s full of elements that engage viewers and grip them until the very end. The plot is intriguing and, at times, frightening. When Curtis dreams of his dog chewing through his arm or strangers smashing his truck’s windows to get to him and Hannah, the bedtime scenes become dreadful. Yet, the mystery in the film is so irresistible that audiences will be willing to endure Curtis’ dilemma to see his story through, even when it becomes obvious that he’s becoming delusional.
Magnificently presented, Take Shelter is straightforward and understated, offering a sober look at the struggles of mental illness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols takes his time, giving actors space to work, scenes room to breathe and audiences time to live with the characters. As such, the world of Take Shelter feels authentic, complete with judging neighbors, concerned employers and the logistical realities of mental health professionals. To be sure, this is a dense film full of world-building – and the two-hour running time reflects that – but every minute is put to good use and Take Shelter never feels long.
Michael Shannon is excellent from beginning to end and seems made to play characters that stand on the precipice of madness. His strong jaw and tight-lipped line delivery presents his reliable family man side, while his beady eyes and reptilian squint showcase his ability to appear frighteningly crazy. It is Shannon’s acting, however, that fleshes out the character, drawing audiences’ sympathy as he doubts everything in his life, including his own perceptions. His struggle to protect his vulnerability is delightfully palpable. Jessica Chastain also handles her role perfectly. As the straight man in this increasingly odd couple, Chastain’s character doesn’t do much out of the ordinary, but what she gets to do she does well. Together, the two gel into the wonderful mixture that makes onscreen couples so enjoyable to watch.
Finally, the religious parallel with the story of Noah’s Ark is undeniable. Noah was also faced with an impending storm of cataclysmic proportions, which prompted him to build a shelter – in his case, a boat – that could outlast it. He, too, faced the doubts of his neighbors. The difference in Take Shelter is that audiences don’t have the luxury of knowing whether Curtis is right or if he’s crazy – and not knowing is what makes this film satisfying to the very end.