Dark clouds, shining stars
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 14, 2011
Taut, unsettling, haunting and powerful, "Take Shelter" stars Michael Shannon in a shattering performance as a man caught up in forces beyond his control.
Whether those forces are environmental, economic or emanating from his own psyche is the question that propels this flawlessly conceived and executed thriller. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories"), "Take Shelter" unquestionably qualifies as one of the finest films of the year, applying a sheen of supernaturalism to a rigorously realist story of heartland struggle and finally coming up with a disquieting parable of early-21st-century anxiety.
Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, who works at an Ohio sand mine and lives with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their 6-year-old daughter in a modest suburban home. As "Take Shelter" opens, something seems wrong in the LaForche's home town of Elyria - the rain has a toxic brown tinge, ominous storm clouds loom on the horizon and flocks of birds mass weirdly. Alarmed, Curtis begins to gather canned goods and emergency supplies, eventually beginning work on a storm shelter that will quickly become an obsession.
Just what's going on with that rain? Does it have something to do with the drilling Curtis and his buddy Dewart (Shea Whigham) do outside of town? Is a nearby chlorine spill related in some way? What about the fact that the LaForches' daughter, Hannah, is deaf?
Like a rope he lets out inch by meticulous inch, Nichols unspools the riveting story of "Take Shelter" with calibrated deliberation, bringing the facts into focus by way of small, eloquent scenes of Curtis responding to the escalating cataclysm. Every action is motivated by emotions as tumultuous as those darkening skies in "Take Shelter," which never takes viewers where they think it will go but still manages to convey an utterly convincing air of inevitability.
If the suspense Nichols so expertly ratchets up gives "Take Shelter" the irresistible force of a classic horror film, the lead performances lend it a solemn, probing depth. Chastain - so impressive earlier this year in "The Tree of Life" and "The Debt" - delivers her finest turn to date as a young wife and mother whose efforts to pay for a beach house rental by taking in sewing soon give way to more desperate measures to keep her family intact. And Shannon - most recently seen in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" - creates a quietly devastating portrait of a man who reveals himself through actions rather than flowery words. In a wrenching, finely nuanced performance, Shannon brings a deepening sense of panic and helplessness to rituals as quotidian as building a dog house or turning a door handle.
Curtis's anguish - and Samantha's steely strength in the face of a world crumbling around her - are what give the climactic scenes of "Take Shelter" their breathtaking, urgent power. Viewers will surely debate the film's epilogue, the kind of question mark designed to spur chatter. The ploy, in this case, is no mere stunt. With "Take Shelter," Nichols has given audiences something genuinely thoughtful and provocative to talk about.
Contains some profanity.