Take Shelter – A Review

When my cable issues still were unresolved last night, I decided to catch up on some movies that have been sitting on my Blu-Ray for a while. I needed something to do other than listening to Verizon’s awful muzak, especially since I was on hold for over an hour (new record!). I settled on the drama Take Shelter.

If you haven’t heard of Take Shelter, you probably are not alone. It is a small independent film that unfortunately got lost in the shuffle of awards season. Though it picked up some nominations at the Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, it didn’t get nominated for any Academy Awards, which is what would have vaulted it onto most people’s radar. Its failure to garner any attention at the Oscars is what ultimately delayed me in seeing it; I was too busy trying to squeeze in the nominees before the ceremony to check out any films that were “off list.”

Take Shelter is the story of Curtis (Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire), a construction worker living with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life and The Help) and their hearing impaired daughter in rural Ohio.  Though it isn’t flashy, he has a good life and he seems content. And then he begins having vivid apocalyptic dreams. The content of the dreams changes, but they always originate with a storm.  Soon Curtis finds himself having similar visions when he is awake as well. The dreams and visions are so real that he has physical manifestations of the pain that he endures during them. After a dream that he is attacked by the family dog, he feels a throbbing in his arm that matches the injuries he imagined.

These hallucinations are of particular concern for Curtis because his mother is a paranoid schizophrenic who began to exhibit symptoms around the same age. Are these apparitions a precursor of his decent into mental illness? Or are they harbingers of some real impending doom from which he must protect his family? Neither alternative is comforting and as Curtis’ anxiety slowly begins to rise he fixates on building an addition to the tornado shelter in his yard. Is he protecting his family from the coming storm, or from himself?

This is a subtle film that has two powerhouse performances by Shannon and Chastain. In the capable hands of Shannon, you can feel Curtis’ paranoia as he tries to find some explanation for what is happening to him. His biggest fear is losing his family and Shannon effectively conveys this as the driving force behind all of Curtis’ decisions. Shannon gives a restrained performance that is filled with nuance. The viewer is along for the ride as Curtis wages a battle against himself. Chastain, who seemingly came out of nowhere last year and gave three outstanding and very different performances, is also strong as the wife who doesn’t understand her husband’s erratic behavior. Samantha already has her hands full with a special needs child and doesn’t need more complications, but she loves her husband and wants to ride out this storm with him. With lesser actors, I don’t think that Take Shelter would be so compelling. It is a shame that neither received any major recognition for these portrayals during awards season.

I’m still marinating on the film’s ending and what it means. It isn’t necessary ambiguous, though it does leave some room for interpretation.

Take Shelter is definitely a movie worth checking out. I’m almost glad that the cable was out so I finally got the chance to watch it. Almost.

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