Review: Take Shelter (Sundance)
PLOT: Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a blue-collar worker, doing his best to support his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young, deaf daughter. All seems to be going well, until Curtis starts having strange, apocalyptic dreams about an impending storm.
REVIEW: TAKE SHELTER was one of the first big buys of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, with Sony Classics picking the film up before it even had it's Park City premiere. Why they would snap it up in such a hurry should be clear to anyone who's been following star Michael Shannon's career over the last few years. With films such as BUG, WORLD TRADE CENTER, THE RUNAWAYS, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE, he's been carving out a niche as one of the premiere character actors of our generation, and TAKE SHELTER features Shannon at his finest.
In a rare lead role, Shannon makes a big departure here from his typically odd characters, with him playing a real everyman. In many ways, Shannon's Curtis reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Both are small-town blue collar types struggling to balance their obsessions with their growing family obligations. Here, Curtis is totally convinced that an apocalyptic storm is coming, leading to an all-consuming obsession to build an elaborate, costly storm shelter that will allow his family to survive.
At the same time, Curtis is aware that perhaps he's losing his mind, and he tries his best to stay rational. His mother, as played by Kathy Baker, is a paranoid Schizophrenic, and part of him believes that he takes after her, so he tries to get counseling, all to no avail. Shannon brilliantly portrays the tight-rope act of a guy who truly believes his family is about to be faced with an apocalyptic calamity, but is rational enough to realize such thoughts are not normal.
As the audience, we never once lose sympathy for Curtis, as we get to see each of his dreams in terrifying detail. Each dream is truly unsettling, and director Jeff Nichols (who previously directed Shannon in SHOTGUN STORIES) directing each of these in a way that suggests he studied the genre work of directors like William Friedkin, or Roman Polanski. There's nothing over the top about any of the visions Curtis is faced with, and I was 50/50 about whether Curtis was crazy or not throughout the film.
Shannon's so good in the role that it would have been all too easy for him to completely dominate the film, but amazingly, the gorgeous Jessica Chastain, who plays his supportive, but no-nonsense wife, matches him beat for beat. Chastain's got a big year ahead of her, with a featured part in Terrence Mallick's TREE OF LIFE, and watching her here, it's impossible to deny that she's a huge talent just waiting to break out. This could have been the typical, hysterical wife role but Chastain gives her character a strength that makes her a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, it's made clear that she's madly in love with Curtis, as no matter how crazy he acts, she's never willing to just give him up, or allow him to sink into insanity. It helps that Shannon never goes over the top in the role, with him only losing his temper once- in a show-stopping scene where he confronts his friends about the way they're all to happy to peg him as insane. If Shannon had been unhinged throughout, it would have made it difficult to understand Chastain's devotion, but he's never anything less than totally sympathetic.
To me, TAKE SHELTER really felt like one of the big Sundance discoveries of the year, and with it being picked up by a major distributor, audiences everywhere will get a chance to see it for themselves. I really can't recommend it highly enough, as it works on so many levels. It manages to be many things, including the story of a modern blue collar family struggling to get by, a story of the way madness can sneak up on even the most seemingly normal individuals, and even an apocalyptic horror tale (it reminded me a lot of Peter Weir's THE LAST WAVE). It's a stunning piece of work, and one of the rare films that feels truly essential.