Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), is a working man in small-town Ohio with his beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their young, hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). When Curtis' recurring dream of ominous storms becomes increasingly vivid, he fears for both his sanity and the safety of his family. Internalising his anxieties, his outward behaviour becomes progressively stranger to his wife and fellow workers, and then the hallucinations start to invade his waking life with terrifying consequences. Is Curtis experiencing deranged visions or premonitions?
Review by Louise Keller:
The mind is the enemy in Jeff Nicholsí unsettling drama in which a man wonders what is real and what is imaginary. Is there really a storm coming? Or is he, like his mother before him, falling into the dark, devastating clutches of schizophrenia? With much of the conflict and tension being internal, this gripping film hangs precariously on the vulnerable mental state of its central character, wonderfully portrayed by Michael Shannon. Michael who? I hear you say? You may not remember the name, but you will remember the face; his was the unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road, playing the psychiatrically troubled son whose tactless observations cut the air with bloodless truth.
When we meet Curtis LaForche (Shannon), he seems like a normal enough guy. He works in a manual job in a small town in Ohio and comes home each night to his loving wife Samantha (Chastain) and six year old deaf daughter Hannah (Stewart). Money is in short supply and there are many pressures due to the special medical and schooling requirements for Hannah. Itís a happy home, however and Curtis and Samantha are in love; their family life rich. Youíve got a good life, his best friend tells him.
But in the filmís opening sequence we see him in a contemplative mood, eyeing the skies, in which ominous clouds are gathering. One is shaped distinctively like the profile of a womanís face. Is this meaningful or not?
Suddenly life is anything but good as Curtis becomes obsessed by his terrible nightmares in which everything and everyone he cares about play a disturbing part: his dog, his daughter, his best friend and his wife. Swarms of birds infest the skies, dark clouds hover low and violent flashes of lightning prance theatrically across the sky. His recurring dreams of ominous storms become increasingly vivid and he starts to fear for the safety of his family. As he internalises his anxieties, his outward behaviour becomes progressively stranger - to his wife and fellow workers. His hallucinations start to invade his waking life with increasingly terrifying consequences. Curtis becomes compelled to build a tornado shelter in his back yard, risking his job, his friendships and his marriage. He also starts to doubt his own sanity. Is he experiencing deranged visions or could they be premonitions?
The effectiveness of Nicholsí film lies in the terror that exists in Curtisís mind. Like his daughter, who is locked in her silent world, Curtis becomes detached from reality and the people most precious to him. The fact that he is unable to connect to the people around him is also frightening. Samantha however, believes theirs is a relationship worth fighting for, and delivers the emotional core that connects us.
There are two dramatic high points that play out in two very different scenes. In the first, Curtis explodes with anger and frustration; the second he displays his vulnerability but manages to harness together some courage.
Shannon has a wonderful ability to draw us to his character: thereís a stillness about him that intrigues. Curtis is clearly disturbed, yet vulnerable. Chastain is fast forging a name for herself in diverse roles that showcase her range. The Debt (releasing in Australia on November 10) in which she plays the young Helen Mirren as a Mossad secret agent is the role that has propelled this talented and versatile actress into a higher echelon. In The Help (released September 1), her role as the buxom blonde outcast who canít cook is a knockout.
At times, the film is tediously slow; at others it offers a brilliant insight into a worth while inner struggle. I felt both of these reactions and it is for that reason, Take Shelter is likely to divide its audience. The film was in official selection at 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was winner of Critics Week at this yearís Cannes Film Festival.
First published in the Sun-Herald
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Acclaimed as the winner of the prize at Critics' Week (Cannes 2011), Take Shelter is Jeff Nichols' follow up to his equally acclaimed Shotgun Stories (2007) also starring Michael Shannon. I say this to establish that many people find Nichols' work exceptional, Take Shelter included. It's described as a 'daring psychological thriller' by Claire Stewart, director of the Sydney Film Festival (2011), where the film had its well received Australian premiere.
As readers may have gathered by now, the film doesn't work so well for me, although I recognise some of its strengths. First of all, there is Michael Shannon's outstanding performance as Curtis, a 35 year old whose life is invaded by portents of doom - or at least a violent storm. His nightmares seem too real, to the extent that when he has a bad one about his own dog attacking him, his arm hurts all the next day.
Jessica Chastain shows a great range of emotions as his wife, confronted by a husband who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown - for reasons she can't fathom.
Nichols builds his screenplay with studied care and deliberation, drawing a picture of ambiguity and nuances, developing the underlying theme piece by piece. We learn that Curtis' mother suffered from mental illness in her 30s, and there are signs that Curtis has at least some of the symptoms of schizophrenia. But his mental state is as ambiguous as his life - and in this Nichols strikes an authentic note. That's how it is in many instances - vague, ambiguous, unsettling.
Curtis experiences wild hallucinations as well as nightmares - and we share them. They are ripped from his real life and Nichols simply cuts into the film to take us there. It's as discomforting and disorienting as it would be for Curtis. He knows there's something wrong in his head, but he can't help feeling the tangible truth of his premonition.
Things go downhill when he takes a loan he can't afford to build a storm shelter out the back of his mortgaged house - which wouldn't be quite so bad if he wasn't fired for being absent and using gear from work to dig the hole.
The hearing impaired little daughter, the exaggerated storm clouds, the oil-like rain and the frightening images of birds swarming in thick, unusual patterns (some falling out of the sky like the frogs in Magnolia ) are all devices to unsettle us and give an otherwise ordinary story sharper edges. But Nichols' drawn out pacing and the absence of any real texture or layers in the screenplay make it seem like an arthouse psycho-thriller without the big payoffs.
Take Shelter feels more like an over-extended short in a long vehicle, a sense driven home by its ending.
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TAKE SHELTER (M)
CAST: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Kathy Baker, Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham, Ray McKinnon, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Guy Van Swearingen, Robert Longsteet
PRODUCER: Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin
DIRECTOR: Jeff Nichols
SCRIPT: Jeff Nichols
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Adam Stone
EDITOR: Parke Gregg
MUSIC: David Wingo
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Chad Keith
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Late 2011