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Going Underground: Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter”

Going Underground: Jeff Nichols's "Take Shelter"

In Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’s follow-up to his excellent 2007 drama Shotgun Stories, all the protagonist’s anxieties condense in the form of a storm cloud. Family man Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, playing crazy with a greater measure of stoicism than he has managed before) dreams of towering thunderheads and funnel clouds preparing to touch down. He gradually becomes convinced that a meteorological event, pitched between Katrina and something more biblical, is coming to wash out an indeterminate portion of the country, and perhaps the entire earth. (The film’s setting, Elyria, Ohio, is on the outer rim of tornado alley.)

The film, shot in boldly plain-looking digital video, but featuring streamlined digital effects, is centered around these nightmares. In the movie’s most stunning dream sequence, Curtis sees shadowy home invaders surrounding his home, while inside all of his living-room furniture suddenly gets sucked up into a an eerie zero-gravity float; Curtis clutches his daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), and his face shows the strain of the force acting upon the room. Still other dreams animate the fear of a threat originating from within: Curtis first imagines being attacked by his dog, Red; then by his coworker and best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham); and later by his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who is in reality loving and supportive. These nightmares have a physical effect on Curtis (he has phantom pains, a bedwetting episode, and later wakes mid-seizure, bleeding from the mouth), giving them some semblance of a purchase on reality. His dreams, which he describes as also “feelings,” come to dictate more and more of his waking actions, and his heightened paranoia (he’s unsettled by patterns, such as a flock of birds at his worksite that assumes an unnatural double-helix formation) eventually segues into full-on hallucinations.

Are these premonitions, or simply symptoms of schizophrenia? (The illness runs in the family: Curtis’s mother was institutionalized when he was ten years old.) Nichols keeps the answer just ambiguous enough that viewers will have something to argue about, and that Take Shelter can be interpreted broadly as an emotional state of the union, a film about the trickle-down damage done by the economic crisis and the recent fear-mongering of elected officials and the American news media. ((in one scene Curtis comments on a local-news broadcast). Read Benjamin Mercer’s review of Take Shelter.

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