Friday, March 2, 2012

Catching up with 2011: Take Shelter

With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols avoids the sophomore slump – his 2008 film Shotgun Stories was my pick for the best film of that year – by creating a moody, atmospheric nightmare; a film that is one half The Shining, with its haunting dream imagery that stems from the point of view of a man losing his mind, also one half Through a Glass Darkly with its poignant observations about how mental illness affects the family unit. Take Shelter is scary because of its imagery, yes, but moreso because of its study of its protagonist, an everyday-kind-of-guy named Curtis (Michael Shannon), and his slow decline and – perhaps the singular element that makes the film most haunting – his realization that his mind is slipping away from him. This is one of the very best movies of 2011 anchored by some brilliantly balanced direction by Nichols (mixing great apocalyptic effects in the nightmare sequences with wise nuanced decisions in the every-day scenes) and two of the best performances of the year. 

Curtis and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain in her best of many performances from 2011) are a recognizable couple from Ohio going through very recognizable problems: Curtis has just been promoted to supervisor at a construction firm, they’re scraping by to save for a vacation to Myrtle Beach, and they’re also weeks away from getting their deaf daughter an operation to restore her hearing. Now, even though these situations are not applicable to everyone, the spirit of them is. Yes, Curtis’ promotion means more money for the family, but we also infer that it means more stress for the relationship as Curtis frequently rushes through the routine of breakfast with the family in order to get to work. It’s little things like that – and we’ll get into this more a bit later – that excite me about a filmmaker like Nichols. He knows that he doesn’t have to turn up his scenes to 11 in order to elicit the appropriate response. Yes, Curtis loves his wife and daughter, but we can see in these establishing scenes – there’s one later where he stupidly forgets about an important ASL meeting with his wife and daughter at a school because he allowed work to keep him from getting home in time – that the stress of the job and the stress of these times (Nichols is very in-tune with the mood of America right now) is a lot for this guy to handle.

This stress is all compounded upon when Curtis starts to have terrifying nightmares. These nightmares range from the bizarre (oil-like rain falling from the sky; furniture rising to the ceiling and the crashing to the ground) to the truly frightening (townspeople smashing his car up and kidnapping his daughter; his wife soaking wet in the kitchen with a butcher knife); these nightmares range from the apocalyptic to visions that are more at home in a slasher movie. Yet, these nightmare sequences never remove the film’s sturdy footing in reality. Nichols is not just interested in Curtis’ haunting visions. If he was, then Take Shelter would be an effectively made end-of-the-world themed horror film; however, Nichols is up to more than just that. There’s a crucial scene where Curtis, getting more and more disturbed by his visions, goes to visit his mother (Kathy Baker). We find out that his mother has suffered from schizophrenia, and that it’s possible it’s hereditary. There’s a chilling moment – that’s played so subtly people may miss it – where Curtis’ mom asks him if he’s okay. The way Shannon plays this scene and plays the response to this question is absolutely frightening because it confirms that this is a man who has internalized his fears and now has been asked if he’s “okay,” and his response is less than convincing.

It’s not as if Curtis is trying to convince himself that he’s okay, though, because here is a character that absolutely understands what’s happening to him while it’s happening, but no matter how hard he fights it he can’t fight off the inevitable decline of his mind. Now, what Nichols does that works so damn effectively here is show how the horror he inflicts upon his family is just as scary as the horror that is inflicted upon Curtis in his nightmares (and, at times, those are very violent dreams).

When Curtis decides that he needs to buy a storage container and plant it in his backyard as a storm shelter, the film starts to focus on the people in Curtis’ life becoming worried that the stress of his life is starting to get to him. He starts to take money out of savings to buy things for the shelter, he gets a bank loan for $6,000 for the storage unit that his banker tries to dissuade him of, and he does all of this without consulting Samantha. Remember, they’re trying to go on a (much needed) vacation and pay for a surgery for their daughter. However, as the film and Curtis’ dementia progresses, he begins to slip at work as he coerces a friend and co-worker to get a few machines from work to help him dig up his backyard so he can put the storm shelter in. This leads to a moment where Curtis, slipping further and further away from real-life responsibilities die to spending so much time on his shelter, asks that his friend be removed from his team at work and replaced with someone else. What follows are damning circumstances for Curtis and his family. In a scene of tremendous power (and perfect blocking of the scene by Nichols), Curtis notices his boss in his backyard looking at the storm shelter. Almost shocked that the rumors of Curtis borrowing company equipment for a personal projects were true, his boss has no choice but to fire him. When Curtis comes back into the kitchen, he simply stands there and mumbles that he has been fired. Samantha simply walks over, slaps Curtis in the face, grabs their daughter, and storms out the door.

Take Shelter’s examination of a man’s sad, slow burning descent becomes horrifying (indeed there is an extended scene in the cellar where it almost becomes unbearable) but is played low-key. There’s a scene where Curtis wets the bed after one of his horrifying nightmares, and he yells at his wife to stay away because he’s so ashamed and unsure of how to handle what’s happening to him. And that’s the key component that makes the film work: this stuff is happening to Curtis, and we watch it not only happen to him, but we watch as he is aware that it’s happening to him. There’s another great scene where Curtis and Samantha are having a discussion about what’s been wrong with him – or rather, it’s more about how Samantha pleads with him to share with her what’s been plaguing him these past few weeks. The way Shannon just plays Curtis as this person who is so ashamed of his descent into mental illness is brilliant; Curtis isn’t some sidewalk preacher orating to the masses about his visions; no, he’s a man who is plagued by nightmares that have drastic and damning effects on his work and family, and the way he just sits there as his wife’s pleas wash over him and stone-cold tells her that nothing is wrong with him is absolutely chilling and heartbreaking.

It is here that I wish to talk about Samantha’s character played so brilliantly by Jessica Chastain and directed to perfection by Nichols. Mental illness is destroying his family, and in any other film, the director would have used that as a catalyst for having Curtis spend the rest of the film alone in his shelter like it was the Overlook Hotel, and having him go even deeper into his insanity. Nichols isn’t interested in such things. Nichols makes sure the film resonates by making the wise decision to not have Samantha be a woman who is afraid of her husband’s illness (and, because of that, use it as an excuse to get the hell out of there), but she is, rather, a wife who wants to help her husband get the help he needs. This distinction allows the film’s more powerful moments to really shake the viewer because they aren’t silly horror parlor tricks where we exist in Curtis’ delusions for the rest of the film; rather, those delusions are reflected and bounced off of Samantha and her desire to help her husband. We empathize with Curtis because his wife is so damn loving and noble. Simply put: this film does not work the way it worked on me without Jessica Chastain.

Chastain is the moral adhesive; everything we feel about Curtis is reflected in Chastain’s reactions (and the townspeople…in fact, this is the sign of a great director: look at the acting and the reaction shots of the people in the community when Curtis finally loses it at a charity dinner. It adds to the tension and sadness of the scene and makes Shannon’s performance at that moment all the more compelling and affecting). There is a moment so powerful (it did indeed move me to tears) near the end of the film where Curtis’ presages finally get the best of him (after being pushed to the edge, that’s the key difference between this film and, say, something by M. Night Shyamalan) and he snaps. Convention tells us that the wife watching her husband unravel scoops up her kids and runs far away; however, Take Shelter is not interested in playing by conventional rules, and instead Nichols has Chastain react in a way that is so beautifully honest and noble that you shake your head in approval at a director who clearly isn’t interested in tacky dramatics to motivate his characters. In fact, one of the key components of the film is the fact that Nichols never isolates Curtis; he keeps him surrounded by friends and family that clearly care about his noticeable descent into schizophrenia.

And then there’s Michael Shannon, one of the best – if not the best – young actor working today. Before I get into his performance, I was struck by this snippet about Shannon’s performance from Andrew O’Hehir of

In an Oscar race that’s likely to feature Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Ryan Gosling, an eccentric outsider like Shannon probably doesn’t stand a chance. But I’d like to think this enormous, marvelously compassionate performance will put him in the running.

Well, he was sort of right. Only, the Academy went with the wrong eccentric performer – and that eccentric performer ended up besting the “stars” of the Oscars – in essence, the Academy decided to go with Roberto Benigini instead of Robert DeNiro. I don’t know when it happened in the Acting category, but the Academy has lost their bollocks when it comes to rewarding daring performances. Shannon’s performance reminded me of something that would have been recognized – and maybe even have won – in the 60s or 70s. Now, however, it seems not the case. And I know that the Oscar winners don’t really reflect “the best” or even really mean all that much anymore, but they do give certain films or actors a bigger audience. Tree of Life wasn’t going to win Best Picture this year, but the fact that it was nominated was a win because more people will seek it out now. The same could have been said for Shannon (and co-star Chastain and writer/director Nichols, too) and his performance here: I just wish he would have been nominated so that more people would seek out this very special film with two amazingly special performances. There is one line from Shannon that is just uttered perfectly. As the clouds begin to form outside, he looks around and says, “Is anyone seeing this?” He says it in a way that suggests I don’t want to say this too loudly because I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t deny what I’m seeing. The way it’s said is so perfect: Here Shannon shows us with the utterance of one line a man who is aware of his own descent. And that’s the scariest aspect of Take Shelter.

What absolutely makes this an effective horror film is the way in which Nichols and Shannon play Curtis as someone aware of their descent into madness. This allows the film to take small, everyday things that stress out low-income/middle class families (credit card debt and ill-advised bank loans). Look at the scene where Curtis steps foot into a survival store. He asks about gas masks, inquires about their cost, hesitates, and then Nichols cuts to Curtis getting in his car and looking at his recent purchase like he knows he shouldn’t have bought the gas mask (both because it’s an odd thing to buy and because they can’t really afford one without siphoning off cash they’ve set aside for a trip to Myrtle Beach), but he had to because he can feel those images that haunt his dreams pressing down on him, forcing his hand to make such a purchase. There’s also a brief, quiet scene where Curtis fills up his truck. The camera just sits on him in medium shot and we look upon Curtis bathed in an eerie green glow from the neon gas signs; it’s a small shot, but damn was it effective. I also love the way Nichols juxtaposes Curtis’ madness and spiral into dark places with clear, blue skies. There are a lot of “small” scenes like that which contain nuanced directing and acting that pack a big punch, and it’s a sign that we’re dealing with a really special director in Nichols who has the uncanny ability to take everyday objects/occurrences and make them unbearably eerie and filled with dread. These scenes also further prove we’re dealing with a one of a kind actor in Michael Shannon.

The closing shot seems to be the one thing that really polarizes viewers of the film. It works for me merely as metaphor (I don’t think we’re supposed to take it literally – this isn’t an operatic, fantastic fable a la Magnolia or a sardonic take on a similar closing image like in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), and really that’s how I have to see it because otherwise it kind of undercuts the rest of the film for me. It’s the one thing that, were I not so affected by the performances and the previous 110 minutes, could have ruined the movie for me. But seen figuratively, I think it works wonderfully.

Take Shelter may feel like a low-budget horror film, but Nichols, like he did with Shotgun Stories, is really saying something about the mood of 21st century America and about the ties that bind. Family, for Nichols, seems to be the thing that is always most fragile but most crucial to get through times like these. There is such tension at the end of the film that works because not only is acted so damn well, but Nichols makes sure to have Samantha’s pleas come off as earnest. She truly wants her husband to find a cure and to be his own catalyst for that cure, and no matter how stormy their future is together, the key is that they are going to go through it together.


  1. Nicely done! I need to see this again, but it's certainly in my top 10 of last year and probably in my top 5. What you say about Chastain is so true. In a way, this is her smallest performance of 2011, but it's so crucial to this film, to keeping it grounded in reality, to making it a movie about these tough economic times rather than some stand alone movie about a guy going nuts in the style of The Twilight Zone.

  2. Thanks, Jason! Nice to see we're in agreement about Chastain. I love Shannon, but her performance is really what won me over and got me so invested in the film. I can't wait to watch it again. It's a healthy #2 on my own revised list, behind Tree of Life.