Restrained and thoughtful, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is an engrossing, slow-burning drama that deals sensitively with the day-to-day effects of burgeoning mental illness.
Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, an average Joe sand-mining worker who suffers increasingly apocalyptic visions in his dreams, and appears to be in the clutches of a severe bout of depression. Whilst trying to hold his life together, he resolves to construct a fortified shelter in his garden (hence the film’s title) to protect his wife and deaf daughter from the storm he is convinced is impending, incurring damaging financial costs and alienating his friends along the way.
In the wrong hands, this kind of material could easily have slid into tabloid sensationalism, or even silliness, but Nichols handles the material with a sure, steady touch and grounds the action in the believable, engrossing milieu of day-to-day family life punctuated by nicely observed details (back-yard jumble sales, the signing class that Curtis and his wife attend with their daughter). Take Shelter also feels topical, with Curtis’ actions taking on a tangible, terrible financial sting in the light of the current global economic crisis.
The tall, intense Shannon, who anchors the film with a superbly convincing performance, positively aches with the internal torment of a loving family man haunted by his own predicament yet helpless to halt the tide. He is eventually to recognize that he needs help, but repeatedly intones “I’m fine” to his wife in a classic sign of stoic denial. Furthermore, after watching approximately four and a half hours of Jessica Chastain do little but be bullied by domineering men (in The Tree of Life and Coriolanus), it’s refreshing to see her do justice to a meaty role as Curtis’ strong, supportive wife Samantha. She is luminous here, and her conciliatory scenes with Shannon are especially touching.
Curtis’ terrifying visions are impressively rendered with imaginative visual effects on a presumably not-massive budget, and the whole endeavour carries a satisfying emotional heft.
A version of this review originally appeared in PPH’s coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival.
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