The following is a reprint of our review from Sundance.
Reuniting writer-director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon after their 2007 “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” is the story of Curtis (Shannon), a husband and father whose sleep is wracked by uneasy dreams of omens and portents. Convinced the end is coming, Curtis starts obsessing about his backyard storm shelter, while his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) grows more and more concerned about his behavior. There’s a terrifying possibility that Curtis is going mad. There’s an even scarier possibility that he isn’t.
Much of “Take Shelter” unfolds with the underwater slowness of a bad dream, though a little editing before it hits theaters (the film was purchased before Sundance even began by Sony Pictures Classics) could go a long way. A slightly briefer running time would significantly help the mood and momentum of the film. At the same time, Nichols’ willingness to let his film happen — to let things build, to make us travel alongside Curtis, step by deliberate step — is hypnotically engaging, pulling us into the story with the heavy, irresistible tug of the tide.
“Take Shelter” evokes similar indie films — “Room” from Kyle Henry or “The Rapture” by Michael Tolkin — in its portrait of terrified obsession and the possibility of the end of all things. Alternately, imagine Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” without the Spielberg-softened predetermination that Dreyfuss’ character is, in fact, right in his irrational ways. Shannon is tense, burdened and silent — he knows what he’s doing doesn’t make a lot of sense, but he can’t stop — and when he finally caves an hour and ten minutes into the film to actually tell someone what’s going on in his mind, you feel the whole audience breathe a shuddering sigh of something like relief. The film’s apocalyptic portents are spiritual, not religious. Curtis isn’t hearing trumpets or witnessing the opening of the seals, but he is confronted by signs and troubled by dreams until he, and we, begin to feel that if these nightmare visions come true, it’ll almost be a relief.
Shot on super 35 film, “Take Shelter” is meticulously composed and lensed. When Shannon drives past a supermarket, Nichols holds the shot perfectly so that we get the same subliminal message Shannon does; when Shannon retreats to his storm shelter to think in the darkness, the white-noise hiss of his Coleman lantern becomes a roar. The special effects — supervised by Chris Wells — are superbly executed within the film’s naturalism, whether fractal, frightening flocks of birds or howling world-ending storms.
While Shannon and Nichols clearly have a strong working relationship, the other performances make it clear that Nichols has the ability to work with other actors too. Shea Wigham steals scenes as Shannon’s co-worker; familiar-face character actor Ray McKinnon has one impressive scene as Curtis’s concerned-yet-taciturn older brother; Kathy Baker, as Curtis’s mother, briefly demonstrates the stakes on the table for Curtis as he tries to figure out if his visions are mere madness. And Jessica Chastain — in what could have been a thankless, one-dimensional role as the I-love-you-but-you-scare-me wife of the male lead — gives a strong and considered performance.
As the focus of the film, though, Shannon is as good as he always is. A lesser actor would have descended into ranting and shouting as swiftly as possible as Curtis falls into the grip of his fears. Shannon, instead, is silent and stolid for so long that a) you come to understand how much the effort of keeping things together is costing him and b) when he does finally crack, it’s a real moment and not a contrived one. Shannon’s performance is structured around conveying how much Curtis would rather not be going through this — he’d stop if he could, but he can’t — and that potential energy builds throughout the film until it is released.
Nichols likes to play with genre — “Shotgun Stories” was a sideways take on a revenge saga, while “Take Shelter,” in other hands, could have been a flat-out horror film or psycho-thriller. Instead, it plays like a naturalistic American portrayal of madness and the apocalypse; for all of their terrors and bizarreness, Curtis’ visions nonetheless still seem more Normal Rockwell than Hieronymus Bosch. Curtis is worried that the world is ending, but we, and the other characters, worry just as much about Curtis destroying his life. As Kyle surveys his brother’s shelter expansion, and wonders about its cost, his concern is far more direct than any long-term concerns about the revelation: “You take your eye off the ball in this economy, you’re screwed.”
“Take Shelter” is almost novelistic in its approach to character and pace, but its ambitions and victories are strongly cinematic, and Shannon’s performance is the stuff bad dreams are made of — human, frightened, fragile, hesitant. “Take Shelter” could benefit from a brief reduction in its running time, to be sure — but as it stands, it’s still a slow-building silent scream that culminates in a moment designed to terrify and transfix just as expertly as it was calculated to send audiences into the lobby arguing about what it truly means. [A-]