There are not many movies that require so much from their lead actors. With powerful visuals, special effects, and booming sound design, a film can compensate for a weak performance with relative ease. Even independent, low-budget movies often have a quirky script or unusual gimmick to make up for a lacking leading lady or gentleman. But Take Shelter does not allow any space for these extra aspects of cinema—there is often only the camera and Michael Shannon, the immensely talented actor who headlines this inventive and original story by writer-director Jeff Nichols.
Michael Shannon is Curtis, a devoted husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father of little Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. He is a construction worker at an oil drill, and he works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Wigham). One day, Curtis starts to have nightmares that involve apocalyptic touchstones such as oil rain, swarming clouds of birds, and massive thunderclouds on the horizon. As these visions continue—and start manifesting themselves in real life—Curtis is torn between the thought that he may be going insane (as his mother did around his age), or that the world is slowly coming to an end. Just to be safe, Curtis starts risking everything, including his life savings and relationship with his wife, in order to build a storm shelter in his backyard, with the hopes of surviving when the action finally begins.
The script is relatively taciturn, which puts a ton of the dramatic onus on Shannon. Fortunately, with his strange features and expressive eyes, the actor conveys the sense that this man’s world is imploding. The fact that he was passed over at the Academy Awards is unconscionable, as his performance is possibly the best of 2011. The supporting cast is equally up to the task, especially Chastain, whose track record of excellent work can add another notch. Interestingly, on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Shannon and Wigham play opposite each other, on opposing sides of the law.
The unnamed town in which Curtis lives is breathtakingly shot, most notably the landscape that seems to stretch forever in the background. Nichols ups the ante by giving you the feeling that although the town is small, those who live there have a lot to lose. The film’s camera work effectively shows Curtis’ increasing paranoia without becoming too kinetic or showy; instead, Nichols uses subtle film tinting and washes out all color from the scene.
Perhaps the greatest complaint one could have about Take Shelter is its pacing: the film is an aggressively slow boil, agonizingly moving forward towards its inevitable conclusion like a juggernaut. But since the payoff is so satisfying—and ambiguous—I really enjoyed the journey you take with Curtis. The cinematic road to madness is often paved with shrieky, explosive moments, as in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, so the quiet collapse Nichols presents is a refreshing change.
The point of it all, I feel, is to demonstrate the consequences of madness on a family. As far as Nichols is concerned, madness is like prison: only one person goes in, but everyone else goes through it. The key is choosing to save either yourself or the ones you love, and how your mind sabotages your attempts to accomplish the latter.