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Take Shelter Movie Review - -

Take Shelter

Reviewed by Damien Straker on September 30th, 2011
Sony Pictures
presents a film directed by Jeff Nichols
Screenplay by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain
Running Time: 120 mins
Rating: M
Released:  October 13th, 2011




On an open property, a construction worker named Curtis (Michael Shannon) is worried about the storm clouds looming over his land. He lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their young daughter, who is deaf. Curtis starts suffering from reoccurring nightmares, where he and his daughter are being attacked. This is coupled with his increasingly irrational behaviour. He insists on locking his dog outside and is intent on building an outdoor shelter for his family to protect them from when he believes the storm will arise. This is despite how tight their money has become, particularly when they are expecting to pay for their daughter’s operation. As Curtis investigates his own health and the medical history of his family, increasing pressure is placed on his relationships with his colleagues and also his wife. She continues to suffer because she cannot keep up with her increasingly distant and distracted husband.

A haunting atmosphere dominates this slow burning and methodically produced psycho-thriller. The motif of a storm, as a metaphor for the internal pressure of the mind, is not a new concept. It’s a classic Shakespearean symbol, used to evoke physical and emotional tension for the characters. This is precisely the brand of horror that Take Shelter strives for, investing heavily in emotional paranoia, as well as post-9/11 angst and uncertainty. What is most refreshing for a thriller of this kind is the restraint that director Jeff Nichols brings to the narrative. The start of the picture is the shakiest because it insists on taking us directly into the mind of the character. We’re involved with two or three different dream sequences, where birds drop out of the sky, furniture is turned upside down and a dog bites Curtis. The latter is the most rattling because the lines between what is real and imagery are blurred. The other dreams are problematic because they feel like they belong to a separate picture, like a cheesy M. Night Shyamalan horror film. It weakens the realism and the belief in the psychology of the central character Curtis. Thankfully, Nichols lets the tension build slowly but visibly in his characters. His control reminds us that less is more and that the unknown is most frightening. There are scenes in Take Shelter that are achingly slow to unfold but the tension is efficiently realised because of the quality of the direction and the performances. In one late scene, Nichols relies solely on diegetic sound and the reverse camera shots of Curtis and Samantha during a conversation. The quietness here is more unnerving and riveting than anything happening outside of the house. This is a leisurely paced film that tests our patience but its rewards are invaluable.

One of other major testing factors in this film is our inaccessibility to the central character. Michael Shannon has face that rarely moves in expression and that alone ask us how much we are going to sympathise with him. The film improves immeasurably, almost to a breaking point of tension, as we become more involved with his irrationality and his fearful uncertainty. The script that Nichols wrote himself is smart because it knows how to raise the stakes for Curtis in an unstable climate but equally unreliable economy too. It’s increasingly apparent in Shannon’s performance that there’s a distant void of a man, who is cold but seemingly ready to explode. Chastain is a perfect contrast because she’s far more emotive and sympathetic. She understands the power of a close-up shot like few other actresses. As with The Tree of Life (2011), she shows us how brittle her character is, not through verbal explosiveness, but the most subtle and gentle of facial expressions. She brings so much feeling to this role. I hope she is rewarded early next year for her recent performances. Collectively, both of these tortured characters make us question whether it is better to survive and live in fear or to die peacefully. If this sounds daunting, there’s a quietly funny scene where this is humorously visualised. After Curtis purchases several gas masks and an oxygen tank for his daughter, he makes his family sit with him in the shelter. The wide shot of the family mounted up together shows us their isolation but also the occasional absurdity of overt paranoia. Sometimes in the worst situations, all you can do is laugh. And this very rich thriller strikes some painful, nervous laughter. It’s one of the most mesmerising thrillers released this year.


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