TAKE SHELTER (15): On General Release Friday 25th November
There’s a storm coming. Or at least that’s what Curtis Laforche thinks in Take Shelter, a fresh, poignant and moving portrayal of mental illness and paranoia which also resonates with today’s belt-tightening economic woes.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a quarry worker who lives in a small town with his wife (Jessica Chastain – yet again) and his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis is plagued by dreams in which an apocalyptic storm destroys his town, oily brown rain pattering down from the sky, but he’s unsure if they are portentous omens or a sign that he’s losing his mind.
As the dreams intensify he becomes obsessed with secretly building a tornado shelter in his back garden. His wife is initially supportive but when Curtis’s increasingly erratic behaviour threatens to jeopardise not only his job but the medical insurance needed for his daughter’s upcoming operation, she doesn’t know what to do. On top of this, his co-worker Dewart (Ray McKinnon) fails to understand his friend’s strange turns. Rumours start spreading about Curtis and the township starts to view him with deep suspicion.
Michael Shannon is incredible, an ordinary joe who becomes twitchy, obsessive and concerned for his own mental state as his perceptions of reality and fantasy start to blur with distressing frequency. There’s something about his eyes which convey a sense of palpable unease – no one plays mental precariousness quite like Shannon.
Refreshingly, far from struggling on blindly, Curtis is aware that he might be developing the same schizophrenic symptoms that his mother (Kathy Baker), has and visits her to ask her if she’s ever been troubled by bad dreams. But the nightmares continue unabated and his condition starts to worsen, culminating in a sudden outburst at a town meeting and a terrifying sequence in which he huddles his family together to ride out the storm in his shelter.
Jeff Nichols expertly keeps the tension buttock-clenchingly tight for the entire running time, so much so that even the most benign scenes take on a sinister sense of foreboding. Curtis works with heavy machinery and every time he starts up his digger’s engine there’s a shiver of fear that something is about to go horribly wrong; the film is suffused with a persistent ominous dread.
Thanks to some skilful editing, it’s never conclusively revealed (even to us) if Curtis really is losing his mind or experiencing genuine premonitions and there are some fantastic sequences where reality and fantasy blend seamlessly. Its ending might frustrate viewers who are looking for a straightforward answer but its ambiguity is also its strength.
It’s not just one man’s struggle with his illness; there’s an overarching social and economic commentary in Curtis’s story. In these austere times, when the natural reaction to impending disaster is to hide and bury our heads in the sand, Take Shelter is a comment on our collective delusions, where embracing madness is preferable to facing our fears. It’s powerful filmmaking, masterfully acted and directed and one of this year’s best.