Thick black clouds begin to take shape in the Ohio sky. They burst and unleash a torrent of oily rain and drench a solitary man. It’s an eerie, tone-setting opening vision seen by Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), superb in its quiet subtlety.
Curtis works in the local sand mine and is married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain). Together they live with their hearing-impaired six-year-old daughter and the family dog. Their homely life soon becomes disrupted as Curtis is haunted by his disturbing visions; apocalyptic storm clouds gather, an oily rain comes and faceless assailants attack him and his child. After being savaged by the family dog in one particularly vivid dream, he finds the pain is very real for the remainder of the day.
The visions increase and continue to plague Curtis, affecting his grip on reality. As his perception of sense and terror begin to blur, he questions if this deepening inner torment is a genuine warning of impending doom or something much closer to home. When he decides to build a storm shelter in the garden, Curtis struggles to keep his family together and his friends onside, willing to risk everything for survival. The only question remains; is he hiding from the storm or from himself?
Take Shelter is a slow burner, understated in its execution, allowing Curtis time to develop his fears and anxiety. At its core the narrative is one man’s desire to protect his family, a parallel with Nichols who wrote the film at the beginning of the economic downturn having just become a husband and father himself. It’s the fear that something terrible is coming that drives Curtis. Jeff Nichols holds the film together, from his own script, with tight direction and arresting visuals. There’s a social realism that makes Curtis ordeal all the more terrifying as he is an everyman.
The leads are fantastic. Shannon, finally with a role worthy of his talents, is outstanding as Curtis, none more so than the scene where he erupts at a community gathering. It’s a powerful scene that illustrates Shannon’s range, as he is sympathetic and aggressive at once. As Samantha, Chastain brings compassion and affection to a wife struggling with her husband’s ever increasing erratic behaviour. There is tenacity to the character that anchors Curtis through his ordeal.
At 120 mins the film doesn’t feel as though it should end any sooner, the pace is gentle but never feels protracted. The final act is both heart breaking and heart-warming, to say any more would give it away.
Take Shelter is an excellent indie and I can’t wait for Nichols’ next film.