Brave filmmaking has been welcomed with some frequency in recent years, with the more independent look and feel bringing acclaim. Take Shelter picked up awards at 2011 in Cannes, but in a film of methodical plot development and ambiguity, fortune doesn’t always favour the brave when vying for critical success and audience uptake. While receiving critical applause, Take shelter had a very limited US, and to my knowledge, a non-existent UK release, as well as a meagre budget.
Director Jeff Nichol’s film is likely known to few, but most likely known to more because of Michael Shannon, soon to be general Zod in Superman re-boot, Man of Steel and FBI agent Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Shannon has been on the radar for a number of years since Bug and Revolutionary Road but has been slowly gaining a “that guy in that movie…” tag. Happily for all, his abilities haven’t gone unnoticed to now become one of the talents of his generation, now gaining the roles he deserves.
Here Shannon takes the lead as Curtis LaForche, a hard working husband and father to his deaf daughter. He becomes plagued by a series of nightmares and hallucinations, leading to the waking belief that a storm is on the way. Ever so slowly losing his grip and digging the not so proverbial hole in his substantial garden, Curtis sets about extending his meagre tornado shelter while foretelling of the storm to come.
Shannon’s performance is subtle and compelling, pitiful in his boyish vulnerability, fearsome when pushed and elusive when quizzed by his caring wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), but most, desperate in his struggle with declining health brought on by the stresses of healthcare, high interest credit and recession America. The subtle subtext is welcome while not overbearingly commenting on the burden of financial woes for all in Shannon’s everyman. In the land of the free, everything has a price, something we can all relate to while sharing in Curtis’ anxiety.
With conservative characters, awkwardly interacting at all times and an apocalyptic feel in the air, tension runs right through with the unknowing of what’s to come. It’s a taught two hours of questioning if the prophesised storm is ‘the end’, or the witnessing of a relatable man’s descent into complete mental breakdown.
A subplot of a family history of schizophrenia, with a visit to Curtis’ institutionalised mother serves brilliantly to compound the belief in Curtis’ madness.
Nichols restrained flair shines with direction that overachieves on a meagre budget. Controlled, precise and atmospheric, a relentless mood is set, underpinned by superb cinematography capturing epic skylines and landscapes within Curtis’ vision of doom laden skies.
Take Shelter’s methodical ambiguity is its strength and is what creates the uncertainty that keeps interest while awaiting the conclusion.
Courageous filmmaking at its best; yes, with a potentially backfiring pace, it’s more precise and methodical than what some might call ‘slow’.
Held together by supreme performances and consistent direction, Take shelter stays true to its mandate, not compromising on feel and build even with an entrenched third quarter that seems unsure of how it’s going to deliver its crucial finale, that is at no point certain.
I have been waiting for Take Shelter for ages, (Thank you LoveFilm for finally getting to it) and much like its appropriate end, it is well worth the wait.