Review: Take Shelter


What's the bigger nightmare: Extreme violence, or an ambiguous but growing sense of threat to all your hold dear? Austin's Jeff Nichols proves it's the latter in Take Shelter, as a family man becomes increasingly obsessed with visions of storms, putting all he holds dear at risk as he tries to keep them safe.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is an upstanding guy with a devoted wife Samantha, an adorable daughter Hannah, a responsible job and a comfortable home. Life isn't perfect, but they all happily weather the storms of life until Curtis's nightmares start interfering with waking life. The more Curtis tries to protect his family and regain a sense of security, the faster it erodes. 

There is nothing to substantiate Curtis' fears, which is both the foundation and the power of Nichols's script. Nichols (Shotgun Stories) deliberately doesn't distinguish reality and nightmare; there is no discernible change in film stock and nothing to indicate which is which. As the film progresses, it's harder for the audience to distinguish between the two, increasing the tension despite the movie's slow and steady pace. But instead of being distracting, it makes it easier for the audience to relate to Curtis' plight. Even the CGI is minimal, and only enough to enhance the story. The overall effect is nearly exhausting as the audience gets caught up in Curtis' plight.

Shannon (Bug, Boardwalk Empire) is a familiar face of mental instability in movies, and it's hard to argue against typecasting. He's made a career out of it, but don't go into the theater thinking this is just another trademark Shannon role. Curtis is firmly grounded in reality at the outset, even when he questions his own sanity as his sense of doom overshadows everything else in his life. Shannon is a towering presence onscreen, but in Take Shelter it's usually a comforting presence that serves as juxtaposition to his fears. Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, The Help) is even more grounded as Samantha, Curtis' wife. 

Like Inception, Take Shelter is a movie best seen early in release to avoid spoilers and reduce expectations . That's not to say Take Shelter isn't a good film -- it is -- and it's building inertia for awards season with the strong performances, script, and direction. But it's also a film that works best with minimal expecations.  Go in trusting the talents of Nichols and Shannon and watching them deliver instead of allowing advance knowledge from diminishing the experience.

Austin connections: Writer/director Jeff Nichols lives in Austin. Post-production work was done at Austin's Stuck On On, which also worked on Slacker 2011 and Heather Courtney's Where Soldiers Come From.