A film review by Craig J. Koban December 8, 2011
2011, R, 122 mins.
2011, R, 122 mins.
Hannah: Tova Stewart /
Kyle: Ray McKinnon /
Kendra: Lisa Gay Hamilton /
Jim: Robert Longstreet
sometimes struggle with coming up with new ways to describe just what a
magnetic and unforgettable screen presence Michael Shannon is, but I will endeavor
to do so here.
If you saw REVOLUTIONARY
ROAD then you may recall the gifted character actor stealing
scenes right away from co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with
his own unique and unrivalled aura of creepy edginess.
Even in forgettable films like THE
RUNAWAYS his matchless and explosive vigor was on full display
and made the film better as a result.
Regardless of the role, Shannon has always come across as a performer
of exceptional power and presence, someone that knows how to impeccably
use stillness and a penetrating stare and then follow that up with an
unstable and enthralling energy. He
holds my attention on screen and even when he unsettles me so much and wants
me to look away, I find that I just can't.
All of his skills are on full
and masterful display in TAKE SHELTER, where he has taken on perhaps his
most complex, captivating, and evocatively realized role yet.
He plays Curtis LaForche, who initially in the film seems like an
ordinary, hard working Middle American that makes a living at an Ohio
sand-mining company. He has a
loving and beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain, an ethereal beauty) and they, in turn, have a bright-eyed and healthy – outside of
her hearing impairment - six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).
If anything, Curtis is living a life of normalcy and marital and
Yet, underneath the facade of this otherwise
ordinary father/husband lurks a dark and slowly deteriorating mind.
At first, Curtis is plagued by unusual dreams that he initially
ignores as inconsequential. Then
he becomes more increasingly plagued by nightmares, some which become so
intense and disturbing that he either wakes up in a pool of sweat or, in
one embarrassing instance, in his own urine.
He becomes a figure of deep, self-doubting unease as he is
beleaguered by more nightmares, which seem to manifest themselves in
hallucinations during broad daylight.
His nightmares have involved doomsday-apocalyptic visions of
violent and intense storms that pour oil-like rain over everything and others
include faceless attackers lunging after him and his daughter.
One even has his dog attack him.
Curtis reacts in ways perhaps
only he can: he builds a pen for his once beloved dog outside, now fearing
the animal because of his visions. When
he begins to have more spontaneous and disquieting visions he goes to the
local library and searches for reading material on mental illness.
He visits his family doctor, who in turn recommends him to a
psychiatrist, who proves to be too far away for him to visit.
He then goes and visits his semi-estranged mom in a desperate
attempt for some answers. His
mother (played briefly, but memorably by Kathy Baker) became schizophrenic
when Curtis was 10-years-old, which has left him with the nagging feeling
that he too could have developed the same disorder.
Things snowball down ever
further for Curtis. He
becomes fanatic about his ramshackle and barely used storm shelter outside
in his backyard. He begins to spend more time in it. He cleans it up, begins stocking it with perishable grocery
items and then, when his damaging psychosis seems to be reaching its peak,
he decides to spend his weekends expanding the shelter with a bedroom area
and toilet facilities, which he makes without Samantha knowing and with
the unlawful use of his employer's heavy moving equipment.
His break from a normal plane of reality seems to be shifting to
the worst possible extremes, damaging his friendships, his marriage, and
even his employment. As he
unravels, much to Samantha’s frightened dismay, he seems sure that the
end of the world is near and that the shelter is his family’s last
salvation. In the film’s unforgettable climax, a storm - much like the
from his nightmares – seems to come, and Curtis and his family flee to
the shelter and then…
Discussing the film more would
approach spoiler territory, but one thing that TAKE SHELTER does so well
is that it gives us an apocalypse drama/thriller that’s not reliant on visual
effects or perfunctory action scenes that seem to dominate so many other
similar examples of the genre. Instead,
director Jeff Nichols – a wonderfully promising up-and-coming talent -
builds his apocalypse film on an unnerving escalation of tension and
dread. Like masters of the thriller genre, Nichols knows how to frighten us
by not being predictable or relying on woeful formulas. He shows incredible restraint, poise, and patience with unraveling
the story because Curtis, as a character, also slowly unravels
from sanity. From its opening
sequence – which shows one of Curtis’ first terrifying visions of
apocalyptic rainstorms – Nichols grabs audience members and puts a
vice-like grip on them for two hours.
The narrative pacing is slow and deliberate, yes, but done out of
necessity: we feel, like
Curtis’ family, trapped within the fractured and tormented recesses of
Here’s another extraordinary
thing about TAKE SHELTER: it’s remarkably evenhanded and sympathetic
when it comes to Curtis himself. In
another witless and contrived thriller, Curtis would have been presented
as a one-note lunatic without any redeeming qualities, but in TAKE SHELTER
he’s more fascinatingly defined than that.
He's a conflicted, tormented, and sick individual, but he’s
not stupid, nor is he recklessly uncaring.
He loves his family and wants to protect them from what he thinks
is the end to come. He takes
necessary steps to seek mental health assistance.
He tries to research his delusions.
He reaches out to his sick mother who may or may not have answers
for him. He confesses to his
wife about his mental illness when he’s at his lowest point.
Curtis is a good man that is sickened with damaging psychological
forces that he cannot control. He’s
TAKE SHELTER wisely never
attempts to answer our questions about Curtis either.
Does Curtis really have schizophrenia?
Are his visions just manifestations of all of his pent up unease
living in an economically ravaged world where the future is unclear (his
daughter, after all, needs costly implants that could save her from her
hearing impairment, but that cost money Curtis does not have)?
More compellingly, is Curtis really a psychic prophet that can
indeed predict the comings of the apocalypse?
There is ample evidence in the film to support a “yes” or
“no” answer to the latter, but Nichols is perceptive enough of a
storyteller to let us make up our minds, at least until the final scene,
which is eerily disquieting for its lingering power.
I almost forgot to mention the thankless way that Jessica Chastain – emerging fully in 2011, with seven films under her belt, as one of the pre-eminent actresses working today – evokes her wife role with a humility, tenderness, and introverted intensity (she’s utterly heartbreaking in the film’s key scene when Curtis tearfully reveals all of his secrets). Then, of course, there is the exhilaratingly jittery presence of Shannon, who occupies nearly every frame of TAKE SHELTER, and never once tips off precisely where his performance is heading in the film. He’s perhaps more subtle and reserved here than in his other films, but this just means that when Curtis has reached a mental boiling point and erupts with a volcanic and incensed rage, you know you’re witnessing one of 2011’s most singularly distressing and fearlessly unhinged performances. He single-handedly makes TAKE SHELTER a supernatural horror thriller unlike any I’ve seen.