By Brian Hall
“Take Shelter” opens with its lead character, blue-collar family man, Curtis, played by Michael Shannon, standing outside his garage amidst the flat landscape of small town Ohio. The sky goes grey; drops of rain begin to fall. He examines the droplets. It isn’t rain, this liquid has the appearance and consistency of motor oil. The scene is muted, gently foreboding and without sensation. It’s also a good set up for the slow burn, character study that follows.
Curtis is a soft-spoken guy who loves his family – his young daughter Hannah who is hearing impaired (Tova Stewart) and loving wife Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain. Problem is, lately, he’s been haunted by creepy hallucinations involving unsettling flocks of birds, funnel clouds and loud rolling thunder. What’s worse is he’s the only one who can see or hear them. He’s also experiencing unnerving dreams where his family, friends, and even the family dog, all turn violent on him.
In spite of the growing frequency of his visions, being the stoic type that he is, Curtis decides to keep them to himself and not worry those around him – never mind the trauma from his past that everyone will surely point to.
As the visions become more alarming (and distracting) Curtis decides he must protect his family from these potential warnings he’s receiving by building a storm shelter in their back yard. The expensive and drastic act stands to drain his family’s savings, threaten medical costs his daughter desperately needs and casts him as potentially dangerous within his close-knit, small town community.
While “Take Shelter” works well as a mood piece and enough can’t be said concerning its excellent performances, its handling of the hallucination concept feels a bit underdeveloped. While Curtis’ dreams are filmed in an effectively unnerving manner, their repercussions – the idea of whether he’s crazy or possibly privy to something devastating up ahead – lacked immediacy.
Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – a film also involving a suburbanite ostracized thanks to unshakable, fantastic visions – kept you hooked as its hero made increasingly misguided decisions because the viewer was just as confused and curious as he was. With Curtis, I felt bad that he had to experience all the confusion but never felt those things bleeding into real life, thereby bringing us into his paranoia as well.
That aside, it’s “Shelter’s” performances that will be most talked about upon exiting the theater. Michael Shannon emotes palpable frustration and tragedy with a simple grimace. His perfectly understated performance keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
Equally engrossing and reinventing the role of “concerned wife” is Chastain, recently seen in “The Help” and “The Tree of Life.” Normally her character would be relegated to fretting and yelling “What’s wrong with you!” when the script is running low on conflict. Not so here. She is equally as tortured as her husband but instead of following “concerned wife” protocol by packing her bags to stay with her mother, she chooses to stay and see him through things that are breaking her heart. It’s a complicated performance she pulls off spectacularly.
“Take Shelter” is a story filled with metaphors to convey the sorts of anxieties plaguing the Average Joe today. War, natural disasters, economic disasters – how does one protect themselves and their family from these encroaching storms? While the nuance of these ideas is handled nicely, the bigger picture left me wanting a little more. Moviegoers seeking a serious slow burn and a top-notch acting showcase won’t be disappointed, I just wish as much attention had been given to the concept.