Take Shelter depicts extreme weather of the psychological variety.
This genre-defying effort from writer-director Jeff Nichols hinges on a single question: are the stormy dreams and visions experienced by a young husband and father (Michael Shannon) signs of a coming apocalypse, or signs that he is succumbing to mental illness?
To be fair, there is much more to the movie than that central mystery. Take Shelter works on a variety of levels, exploring masculinity in the face of weakness; the paranoia that can accompany fatherhood; and, at its most macro level, the collective psychic state of this unsettled moment in history, when floods and tornadoes and hurricanes threaten to make things collapse if the financial markets don’t do it first.
I can’t think of a better actor for the lead role of Curtis than the stoic, vaguely threatening Michael Shannon (Bug). With that frowning face – including a right eye that looks sleepy and a left one that looks crazed- Shannon could play Jekyll and Hyde at the same exact time. He has a sort of anti-magnetism; you’re drawn to him, but always wary.
That allows Shannon to hit a variety of notes here, even moments of playfulness with his hearing-impaired daughter (a touch that has all sorts of thematic implications). Mostly, though, Curtis is stoic on the outside and terrified underneath, furtively researching paranoid schizophrenia so as to not show weakness to his wife (Jessica Chastain). He even takes a self-directed quiz to assess his symptoms, shows the results to a counselor and demands the pills that will solve the problem – a manly course of action if there ever was one.
One of the best scenes in the film is that in which Curtis finally opens up to his wife about what’s been happening (though considering at this point he’s begun to build an elaborate underground shelter in the backyard, she’s well aware that something is wrong). Curtis stumbles to find the words that will not only break through his natural, masculine reticence, but also explain what his paranoia feels like from the inside. (For her part, Chastain does some of the best acting I’ve seen all year simply with when and how long she chooses to close her eyes in distress.)
Nichols, the writer-director, takes us inside Curtis’ mind throughout the film, and it’s a frightful journey. His dreams begin with a storm of some sort, then either involve the endangerment of his daughter or an attack on him by someone he otherwise trusts. We can feel the horror, as well as how it bleeds into Curtis’ waking life.
The storm effects throughout the film are delicately handled, so that the foreboding skies seem of this world, yet far more dangerous. That’s especially true in the film’s final moments, which have proven to be a sticking point for some viewers in the way they handle the movie’s central question: is Curtis sane or not? Without giving anything away, might I suggest that films don’t always have to end with either/or?