Curtis LaForche, protagonist of the new film Take Shelter from director Jeff Nichols, would be a sympathetic protestor in the current Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a hard-working father and husband who does not asks for handouts, but is increasingly anxious about his family’s financial situation. His deaf six-year old daughter is in line for a cochlear implant and his wife has taken up an extra job selling homemade items at a farmer’s market to help with the expenses. Their health insurance should cover the procedure provided Curtis is able to maintain his job. They are the 99%.
Nichols uses this story of financial anxiety and mental illness more to reflect the current American state of mind than an individual story of a man fighting his own mind. There is some repetitiveness in the early moments as numerous dream sequences begin to look the same, but overall the film is remarkably successful in its attempt to portray a collective state of consciousness. Packed with symbolism and anchored by a compelling performance from Michael Shannon, Take Shelter is one of the most powerful and relevant films of the year.
On the surface, Curtis (Michael Shannon), his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) look like a very typical American middle class family with concerns about finances, healthcare, and overall safety. However, the real issue is not visible to outsiders – Curtis is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness. We learn that his mother is a schizophrenic in assisted living and she was about the same age as Curtis when her issues began to surface. Curtis does research at the library and visits a counselor at the free clinic in an attempt to diagnose and treat himself before his family becomes aware. However, we learn that he might not be completely in control.
Much of Curtis’ anxiety is the result of graphic dreams that seem to foreshadow his own downfall. The scenes begin by looking realistic, and then become purely symbolic; resembling some of Ingmar Bergman’s dream sequences in films like Wild Strawberries. Every dream shows a malicious encounter with someone in his life leading him to be suspicious of that person in his waking hours. Most of the violence is inspired by the weather, settling the notion in Curtis’ mind that there is a major storm coming. And not the symbolic kind.
Curtis channels his anxiety into the assembly of a massive tornado shelter in his backyard, much to the dismay of Samantha and confusion of Hannah. Curtis is so rational with the way he handles his own mental problems that it creates an uncertainty about whether the impending storm might actually be real. In one scene Curtis stares out at a swirling cloud and says aloud to himself “is anybody else seeing this?” Ultimately, whether an actual storm is coming or not becomes less important than the storm that is brewing inside of Curtis.
The visual storytelling in Take Shelter is top notch with Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone making clouds over an empty Midwest plain look like an ominous supernatural message. The effects budget for the film was small, which keeps all of the visuals at a distance relative to our characters. This works to an advantage as it creates ambiguity about the visions Curtis is seeing. For instance the hundreds of birds he sees flying in formation might be real, might be far enough away that they have another explanation, or might be all in his head.
Recently Michael Shannon has been pigeon-holed in the “character losing his mind” role after brilliant performances in films like Revolutionary Road and Bug. He shows much more range in Take Shelter than in those previous efforts as there is a lot more to his character than his descent into insanity. He draws audience sympathy for being a worried father who is rational and calculating, like when he fills out a checklist for schizophrenia symptoms before visiting a counselor. This rationality makes it all the more off-putting when he exhibits characteristics of insanity.
Jessica Chastain, who has been in every other movie released this year, gets her most substantial role in 2011 as the devoted, but concerned wife Samantha. Her scenes with Shannon are fantastic as she knows when to humor him and when to put her foot down and take charge. There is an excellent power struggle going on between the two of them that is heartbreaking, but poignant as it represents many of the struggles a recession era family goes through.
Some might argue that the film spends too much time being a parable that the intimate family story is lost. I would argue that there might be one too many dream sequences. However, where Take Shelter most succeeds is in the conversations it will inspire. The ending is hugely impactful and it’s difficult to review this film without giving it away. The implications magnificently reflect the American consciousness in this continually uncertain political and economic environment.
Bottom Line: Take Shelter is more about the current American state of mind than one family’s story and it deserves to be discovered.