Attempting to unravel writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is prone to spending so much time investing the minutia that the bigger picture is lost. And there’s a lot of detail to admire in the psychological family thriller on the levels of visuals, storytelling and the nature of perception. And while there’s richness to be found from moment to moment in Take Shelter, what makes the whole film impressive is how masterful the overarching film turns out to be.
Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue collar family man, begins experiencing dreams and waking nightmares of a coming storm. Worried over the fate of his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) and supportive wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), Curtis begins a series of projects that make him the talk of the town as a lunatic and begin to draw him away from his family.
It’s easy to get lost in the apocalyptic visions that Curtis experiences. They’re easily some of the most fantastic special effects of recent years, seamlessly woven into the psychological reality of the film. It’s these moments that demonstrate Take Shelter could literally go anywhere with the premise, Curtis could become lost in this world, as the viewer might be lost in the spectacle of nightmarish, but enthralling visions.
However, the film is grounded in the reality of family relationships. While Curtis’ visions are important to the film, they’re not the key element that needs to be resolved. The real issue is the heart of dealing with how this man understands his role as both a protector of this family but also someone who nurtures his family. As Curtis experiences these visions, he begins to become too much of a protector, too caught up in being cautious to an unhealthy extreme.
He slowly suffocates his family, emotionally shutting out his wife and denying his daughter from her own faithful companion out of fear. Take away the visions and all the psychological baggage that comes along with it and Take Shelter is a study of the fears of fatherhood and how it can drive a man from being a model of the good father into an obsessive control freak.
It’s Take Shelter’s interest in exploring this interpersonal reality, using the vehicle of nightmares and visions as a way to construct a fragmented portrait of the devolution of the good father. It works as both as a higher-level study of human behavior as influenced by fear and also as a tragic, emotional experience of a family’s struggle to maintain unity.
Of course, a good amount of the credit for this fascinating study must be given to Michael Shannon. His gruff softness makes him disarming, but Shannon is able to channel and contain an amount of anxiety and fear and use it to make his performance completely unsettling and mostly understated. And when the lid finally blows off, Shannon proves he’s one of the finest actors working today.
Take Shelter works on the level of visual fascination and narrative engagement, but neither element takes the film from simply a well-crafted drama into something that has a poignant point to make about the practical and internal nature of human existence. After all, few emotions are more powerful and pervasive than fear.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing