By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
During an interview with CinemaBlend.com, writer/director Jeff Nichols observed that, “Anxiety, no matter how free-floating it is, it’s all rooted in the idea that you have something to lose.” In Take Shelter – Nichols’ sophomore outing and second collaboration with actor Michael Shannon – this sentiment is embodied in the character of Curtis LaForche (Shannon). Curtis is a thirty-five-year-old family man with a good life who fears he may lose it when he begins having increasingly vivid dreams foreboding a storm of apocalyptic proportions. The first of these dreams serves as the opening of the film, in which Curtis stares up in a mixture of awe and trepidation while clouds as dark as they are immense seem to swallow the sky entirely and a thick, brown liquid begins raining down on him – a substance he later compares to motor oil.
Curtis quickly becomes leery of these nightmares when they begin to have repercussions on his waking life, such as when he is attacked by his dog in a dream and then carries a sharp pain in the arm that was bitten the next day. Additionally, he begins to have hallucinations in which he sees hundreds of birds tearing through the air or hears bellowing cracks of thunder. Specifically, Curtis is worried that he is experiencing the early stages of schizophrenia – an illness that struck his mother when she was in her thirties. He takes logical steps, visiting the public library for a few books on mental illness, seeking the advice of his doctor, and eventually confiding in a counselor. He even visits his mother and questions her about when she developed schizophrenia, looking for commonalities with his current state of being.
However, Curtis’ paranoia also inspires more radical actions as he moves his dog to a kennel outside for fear it may hurt him or his family. Then, gripped with a visceral feeling that the storm conjured by his imagination is approaching reality, Curtis becomes determined to rebuild an old tornado shelter in his backyard, and takes a very risky loan in order to fund the endeavor. The project befuddles his co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), who agrees to help anyways, and upsets his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who has been preoccupied with scheduling a costly surgery that will give their hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (Tove Stewart), the chance to have a normal life. As Curtis’ dreams continue to intensify, he becomes increasingly distant and irritable, causing those closest to him to become more concerned. At one point he remarks that he is doing everything he can to stay with his family – a promise he made to himself long ago should he begin to develop the illness that forced his mother away – but every subsequent action only brings him closer to losing everything he has.
Cinematographer Adam Stone, who worked with Nichols on his previous film, Shotgun Stories, brings a masterful focus to the latter’s vision. Simply put, Take Shelter is an exercise in restraint, consisting largely of medium shots and medium close-ups that are usually static. In a film that is mainly character-driven, this methodology avoids distracting the viewer with other elements of the mise-en-scène, splendidly highlighting the nuanced performances of the actors. Camera movement is precise and formal when utilized, transpiring slowly but with deliberation; there are no overly-elaborate shots, and a few necessary special effects are implemented with practicality. This practice carries over into the soundtrack, which is comprised predominately of diegetic sound. Music is reserved mostly for Curtis’ dreams and hallucinations, though it takes the forefront in the antepenultimate and final scenes, where natural sound is drowned in powerful, orchestral crescendos that lend verve to these moments in a way that actual noise never could. This is minimalist filmmaking at its absolute finest.
All of this would be for naught, though, if not for the powerhouse performance given by Michael Shannon, who carries the weight of the film on his shoulders with herculean finesse. His ability to communicate with the viewer through careful, calculated movements and facial contortions is uncanny in its mastery, from the subtle twitches that ripple across his expression to his frequently pursed lips and constant eye movement. Nichols has been forthright in several interviews stating that he did not have Shannon in mind when writing the script – a revelation I found astonishing due to his brimming perfection in the role; it is doubtful that another actor could have filled Curtis’ shoes with more conviction. Moreover, Shannon’s performance is complimented by that of Jessica Chastain, their interactions with one another emanating an aura of authenticity to a degree that other filmic pairings seldom achieve. During the scene in which Samantha confronts Curtis, Chastain is simultaneously livid and on the verge of an emotional collapse, her frantic pacing and clear, commanding voice colliding with Shannon’s quiet evasiveness in a spectacular exchange. Later, when Curtis finally confides in her about the inner struggle that sparked his peculiar actions, Shannon’s expressive face echoes the nervousness in his words, which are spoken with pitch-perfect candor while Chastain stares at him silently and intently, the disquiet in her eyes conveying all that is necessary. One would not think it a stretch to say that Shannon and Chastain – who I opine to be two of the finest rising stars around – will likely receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively (though Chastain may not necessarily be nominated for her performance in Take Shelter, as she has appeared in several outstanding supporting roles this year).
Thus far, Jeff Nichols has demonstrated a competence rarely exhibited by directors at such an early stage in their career, and with two wonderful films now under his belt, he has established himself as an artist to watch. Many critics are declaring Take Shelter to be the best film of the year, and with 2011 quickly nearing an end, I am inclined to join the chorus in that proclamation. Nichols’ next film – Mud – is already in production, with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon starring and Michael Shannon reuniting with the director for a supporting role. The film is currently slated for release sometime in 2013, which is a bit far off, but if Take Shelter is any indication of things to come, it should be well worth the wait.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Jeff Nichols
Screenplay Jeff Nichols
Producers Sohpia Lin, Tyler Davidson
Cinematography Adam Stone
Editor Parke Gregg
With Michael Shannon (Curtis LaForche), Jessica Chastain (Samantha LaForche), Tove Stewart (Hannah LaForche), and Shea Whigham (Dewart)
[Interview with director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon]