Take Shelter (2011) – Review by Justin Kueber
Apocalyptic thrillers, as they are so commonly referred to, are a topic so common in films today that they should have their own genre. Whether it is the Mayan 2012 doomsday prediction portrayed in Roland Emmerich’s 2009 disaster (in more ways than one) film, 2012 or more recently, in Lars von Trier’s artistic apocalyptic vision, Melancholia, a film that depicted Earth on a collision course with a newly discovered planet—these portrayals of a doomed civilization are not new to modern audiences. Jeff Nichols’ film, Take Shelter, however, provides a fresh, unique look at the “end of the world” genre. Take Shelter is an extremely powerful and haunting film that explores one man’s unsettling, apocalyptic visions that veer into the depths of anxiety and the uneasiness of the common man, in a post-9/11 America, where social and economic despair is very much a part of day-to-day life.
Life is as good as it’s going to get for small town, Ohio, blue-collar construction worker Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon). His beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is a stay at home mother taking constant care of their deaf six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Despite the poor economy and having to pay for Hannah’s special schooling, Curtis makes ends meet and supports his loving family. However, things start to change once Curtis starts experiencing vivid apocalyptic dreams including: reoccurring images of an apocalyptic storm, his dog biting his arm off, being attacked by his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), and even his own wife violently attacking him. Not fully understanding these bizarre visions, Curtis decides to build a storm shelter, which troubles the people around him, including his family and his friends.
The cast of Take Shelter is perfect in every way—each actor fully embodying their characters and delivering memorable performances. By far the finest asset amongst the outstanding cast is Michael Shannon's portrayal of Curtis. Shannon is able to transform into Curtis, a man torn between protecting his family from a storm that he has witnessed in his mind's eye and protecting his family from himself.
Director Jeff Nichols is a master of his craft, using this apocalyptic thriller as an allegory for the economic crisis and post-9/11 fears that have plagued America. Nichols is a master at building suspense throughout the film. The opening scene in which Curtis is standing in the backdrop of a dark sky filled with menacing clouds that are raining an almost oily, dark brown liquid makes you shiver at the thought of this happening in real life. The tension does not stop there. It builds and builds as we witness Curtis' anxiety-inspired actions spiral into utter insanity, which are downright frightening.
As Curtis’ visions get more intense, we begin to question his sanity. Could Curtis be suffering a hereditary mental illness like his schizophrenic mother, played by Kathy Baker, or are these visions a warning that the end is near? The mystery continues as Curtis decides to act on both possibilities; seeking help from a counselor, while at the same time building a lavish storm shelter. As the family becomes increasingly frightened by his actions, the audience is equally as frightened—brilliance on the part of Jeff Nichols.
Take Shelter, which has rightfully won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at the Deauville American Film Festival and the Best International Feature Film Award at the Zurich Film Festival, is a masterful piece of work. Right until the final scene, the audience is left wondering if this truly is the end of the world or just the end of Curtis LaForche’s world, as he dives deeper into a world of frightening visions and apocalyptic anxiety. Take Shelter is a powerful, thought-provoking film that explores the depths of the human mind in times of apocalyptic fear.