Directed by Jeff Nichols (2011)
by Sandy DeVito
This review may contain spoilers
I'm a person who often questions my understanding (or lack of understanding) regarding the nature of reality. We humans, in actuality, know so little about existence, and we cling to constructs that give us some semblance of order. Time, dreams, the fog surrounding mental illness, what's important and meaningful to us: Take Shelter is about all of these things, and it's also about the unknown, in all its blackness, humanity's endless fumbling with what we don't understand. This is a very beautiful, very frightening, essentially moving and well-made genre film of the kind I've rarely seen in contemporary filmmaking.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a devoted father and husband. His small daughter has recently become deaf due to illness, and while he and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, always excellent, in one of her earlier and underrated roles) try to learn sign-language and schedule a surgery that could restore her hearing, he begins to experience terrifying nightmares and what seem to be unnerving hallucinations. The dreams often involve violent storms with rain like motor oil and people attacking him or his family. He wakes up terrified, choking down silent screams, and once wakes to find he's wet the bed. The hallucinations involve birds flying in strange patterns, or strange clouds with intense lightning the likes of which he's never seen. He becomes very paranoid, renovating the tornado shelter in his backyard, taking out a large bank loan to expand it, using equipment from his construction work without permission, hoarding canned food. He's conflicted: are the hallucinations real and his dreams some kind of prophetic warning, or is he losing his mind?
With the current state of affairs on our increasingly crowded, rapidly warming and resource-drained Earth, this is a prescient and immediate film for our times, and it deals with the enormity of a shadow on our horizon with an intimacy that feels real and deeply relatable. The dynamic of Curtis' small family is convincing and empathetic. His desire to do whatever is best and most right for his family and his fear that he's mentally unstable builds an atmosphere of palpable tension. The film convincingly portrays the desire in all of us to explain the inexplicable. In the way I couldn't help expecting the film to unfold conventionally to some degree (but it doesn't, and that ending comes right when it needs to - a perfect ending is so hard to do, and this one was the masterful stroke of a concerto's end note), we the audience are also guilty of disbelief in the face of the extraordinary. The third act is a tad too long, but ultimately lends more tension to a masterful narrative that speaks quietly while staring into the face of the monster.
Whatever will be will be, and there may be no explanation for it. There is so much we don't and may never understand, but there are instincts that go far beyond the tangible and the obvious. When the apocalypse comes someday, love is the only thing that will quell our doubt. Love is the force that will help us believe the strange and face our deepest fears.