Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maniac or Prophet? Either Way "Take Shelter" - Review

Just a few decades ago, a man like Curtis, the protagonist of Take Shelter, might have been deemed a modern prophet, beloved of God, or an agent of the Devil.  However, in today's modern world, where every other television channel has it's own self-proclaimed prophet, the line between prophet, liar, and just plain crazy has become less clear.

Curtis is an average blue-collar worker.  He drills test holes into the ground for a small contracting firm in rural America.  His family is typical in how atypical it is.  He has a charming young daughter, loyal dog, and an overwhelmingly motherly wife.  Nothing is stronger than the love each member of the family feels for each other.

This is a love born out of adversity, particularly in the struggle felt in dealing with Curtis's daughter's deafness.  The world is a dangerous place for his daughter and Curtis is on the verge of getting her the help she needs.  His job provides him a strong health insurance plan that can provide his daughter with a cochlear implant that would change her life.

However, trouble is literally on the horizon for Curtis when he begins to have visions of a coming storm that is purely apocalyptic in nature.  Tornadoes swirl in the distance, coming closer by the second, and motor oil rains from the sky.

The central question of Take Shelter, by director Jeff Nichols (Thumbsucker), is of Curtis's sanity.  Is Curtis losing his mind or is he a prophet for a coming storm, the likes of which rural Ohio has never seen before?

Jeff Nichols guides the audience through his film from the perspective of Curtis, played expertly by Michael Shannon, and by doing so unflinchingly propels the viewer into a sometimes-nightmarish world where reality and fiction are often the same thing.  Like last year's dazzling Black Swan, this perspective serves to draw every visual into question, leaving plenty of room for post-viewing debate and conversation.

This unique perspective wouldn't be so captivating if a believable and relatable protagonist didn't accompany it.  Michael Shannon's (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) Curtis is an incredibly tragic figure whose descent into what appears to be madness is powerful and appropriately genuine.  Shannon has an incredibly expressive face that can, with a curl of the lip, communicate a vast array of emotional complexity.

What makes the film so terrifying is the fact that Curtis is such an everyman and he isn't unaware of his condition.  Knowing that his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at an early age, Curtis is quick to address the problem, seeking out medical attention and counseling.  He knows that if it goes too far and he loses his job, it won't only affect him but his daughter's health as well.

At the same time, Curtis's visions are so vivid that he feels compelled to try and save his family from befalling any further tragedy.  Soon he is investing huge sums of money into building a storm shelter in his backyard, without his wife's initial knowledge.

The marital interplay between Shannon's Curtis and his wife, Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help) is allowed to slowly build into various uncomfortable confrontations.  Chastain continues to impress, after a year of strong performances, with her portrayal as Curtis's earthy, ubiquitous wife.  Her slow realization of Curtis's predicament proves just how strong her love for Curtis is, making the proceedings even more upsetting.

David Wingo highlights the blending of Curtis's two realities with an incredible score.  Wingo's score is simple but oddly evocative, utilizing deep strings that serve not only to express the terror that Curtis feels but also the incredible sense of awe that he feels as he stares towards the impending storm that only he can see.

As the film continues, Nichols slowly removes the audience from Curtis's perspective, which only further serves to create an incredible sense of ambiguity about the nature of Curtis's mental state.  It is in this way that Take Shelter becomes more than just a film about the nature of losing one's mind but a commentary on the condition of mental health in America.  Nichols makes an unforgettable statement about how rapidly the most loving of American families can be utterly destroyed by an unflinching healthcare system.

Take Shelter is all about the quiet intensity of rural Ohio life and the dangers of the human mind.  The power of love comes saddled with an incredible set of fears and uncertainty, which can quickly devour an individual, his family, and eventually, the community he is involved in.  By the end, Take Shelter will have audiences questioning their own perception and how they view their own notions of reality.

3.5 / 4 Reels



  1. I agree almost 100% with your views here. This syncs up really well with my own review, but I totally neglected to mention the score in my review. It was truly one of the most subtle and evocative I've heard all year. So much in this movie is perfect, yet I worry it will get little to no awards attention, which is an absolute shame.

  2. liked it but it is a rip off of "the last wave" and "frailty"