Leading up to the wide release of Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, Vague Visages’ Dylan Moses Griffin will be looking back at each of the director’s previous features, and he now arrives at the incredible second feature, Take Shelter.
Take Shelter grabs hold of you immediately. It begins with a striking first shot, wind blows through the trees, but something doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel natural. Michael Shannon’s Curtis wears suspicion on his face as he watches this otherwise innocuous act of nature. The way the trees move feels just a few frame rates away from slow motion. In the sky, the clouds begin to form into a massive storm, and rain begins to pour an orange liquid. What’s informative about this opening scene is that Nichols doesn’t sharply cut away to let you know that what you’re viewing isn’t actually happening, but instead, he provides a sort of natural cut to Curtis showering. Nichols doesn’t let you know one way or the other if what you just saw was “actual,” and it’s key to understanding Curtis’ decisions and struggles throughout Take Shelter. Nichols treats these things as real, because mental illness is real and deserves to be treated as such.
The film follows Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a father and husband in small-town Ohio, who begins to have nightmares and hallucinations of an apocalyptic storm. As they become more frequent, he becomes more paranoid about the safety of his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah, and in preparation for the storms in his nightmares, he begins building a storm shelter in their backyard.
Nichols continues his ability to create intimacy with the audience through his characters’ daily lives, as seen first in Shotgun Stories. Avoiding an overtly expositional “how about our deaf daughter, huh?” conversation, Nichols addresses the topic in a heartfelt exchange where Curtis signs “I love you” to Hannah in the morning before he leaves for work. One night, both Curtis and Samantha note how they still whisper around their daughter when she sleeps. Samantha is a stay-at-home mom and sells crafts on the weekends. Each year, the couple saves up to rent a beach house for a weeklong vacation to Myrtle Beach. Curtis works at a construction company, and he enjoys working with his friend Dewart. After one night of drinking, Dewart says “You’ve got a good life, Curtis. I’m serious. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, “That’s good.” You must have done something right.”
Nichols’ understanding of his characters’ working life, and how it determines so much of how they live, is key to how he constructs the narrative. It’s this aspect that not only makes him such an important figure in the New Americana movement, but its prominence in Take Shelter makes the film such a seminal work. When Curtis loses his job, it’s a moment filled with more danger and consequence than an action film. He walks back into the house and tells Samantha the news, and she slaps him. For Nichols’ characters, their work is their life, and Curtis has just lost his. The economy and healthcare, and how fragile it all is, hangs like a specter over Curtis. His brother warns him not to take a fall in this economy otherwise he’s screwed (and to not put anything on credit cards). The co-pay for Curtis’ sleep medication is a lot higher than he’s used to, and he and Samantha finally get a cochlear implant surgery approved through his insurance, but it all hangs in the balance when he loses his job. Part of the New Americana movement is detailing how difficult it can be to simply live in modern America, and Take Shelter represents an emotionally felt and authentically realized cinematic vision of that fact.
In Take Shelter, Nichols and trusted collaborator Adam Stone keep much of the still and calm naturalism of Shotgun Stories, but there’s a heightened air that’s inherent in Curtis’ hallucinations, balancing between “actual” and “cinematically unreal,” never tipping too far one way or the other. It’s exemplified in one scene where Curtis watches a violent lightning storm and wonders aloud “Is anyone seeing this?” Nichols will also begin these nightmares as naturally as he does any other scene, and it becomes difficult to trust if what you’re watching is actually happening, which represents an accurate depiction of how episodes of mental illness begin… they just do, you don’t know how they start. These nightmares, even though Nichols will show Curtis snapping out of them, feel as real to us as they do to Curtis. Although Nichols is a filmmaker whose stories revolve around real people and utilize real settings, there is a fair amount of visual effects work in this film. It’s employed seamlessly, showing Nichols can utilize this kind of technology on par with the best directors, and for a fraction of the cost. David Wingo’s score shares the caution and worry of Curtis, as there’s an inherent sort of mystery in the orchestration of his bells that hint at something horrible on the horizon, that something almost supernatural is at work.
Michael Shannon is one of the best working American actors right now, and you never get the impression that he’s phoning it in, regardless of the quality of the final product. His performance as Curtis is not just the best of his collaborations with Nichols, it’s also the greatest performance of his career. Shannon’s always operating at a base level of stress that he’s carefully guarding from everyone, making the audience search his perpetually rugged and worn face for the subtle hints he gives. Curtis is somebody who actively hides his illness from those closest to him, trying to fix things himself, and Shannon makes that distinction of communication in his interactions with Samantha and others felt… the wear and stress they cause. You feel it when Curtis’ brother asks him if he’s stressed. Curtis tries to be humble and masculine, saying “No more than anybody else.”
There’s a famous scene at a community dinner, in which the knowledge of Curtis’ firing and rumors of mental illness have gone through the town. This illustrates the stigma that attaches itself to you with mental illness. Once people know, it’s all they associate with you. Dewart is there, and things are tense between them. Curtis kicks Dewart, flips over a table and starts screaming and yelling at everyone, addressing how they all think he’s crazy and that a storm is coming. During this, he stops for a moment and almost tearfully asks one person “Do you think I’m crazy?” It’s a powerful scene, and one that Shannon delivers with authenticity, never letting it slip into melodrama and over-the-top antics.
The rest of the cast is top notch as well. Jessica Chastain can seemingly do no less than a great performance, and she turns in an emotional one as Samantha. The dynamic between herself and Shannon represents an honest portrayal of marriage and parenthood, their lived-in chemistry giving a real sense of authenticity. Shea Whigham, a sixth-man, all-star MVP, lends his talents as Dewart, while Eastbound and Down star Katy Mixon gives a nice performance as Dewart’s wife and family friend to Curtis and Samantha. The great Ray McKinnon also has a brief and welcome appearance as Curtis’ brother.
There’s a lot of debate about the ending of Take Shelter. Was Curtis not crazy, are the storms real, was he having visions, or are they just metaphors for his mental health? Some have complained that it’s a copout of an ending, seeking to stir discussion with a sort of twist that it doesn’t justify. If you’re asking those questions, you’re asking all the wrong questions and have been viewing the movie at surface level. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter if the storms are real or not. What matters is that Curtis has his family with him, and that they are ready to face what lies ahead with him.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.