Review: Take Shelter

Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Producer: Sophia Lin, Tyler Davidson
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham
Runtime: 120 min.
MPAA: R

Where is the line between fear and paranoia? Is the former objective, and the latter subjective? Is it a matter of perspective? Certainty or uncertainty? Or is the quest for the justification of either inane?

Take Shelter is a film that is steeped in realistic, atmospheric tension, not unlike the masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick. For this, I am quite certain that I cannot adequately describe the film without detracting from its impact on the viewer. At its very core, it is a film about the gradual devolution into paranoia of a blue-collar family man, crafted through the lens of suburbia and nightmares.

The narrative seamlessly weaves from lush landscapes and friendly faces to nightmarish storms and paranoid delusions, and these visuals are as much a character within Take Shelter as any of its cast. We are given intermittent glimpses into the real world interactions of Curtis (Shannon), Samantha (Chastain), and Hannah (Stewart) with their Midwestern peers, as well as joining Curtis in his waking nightmares that set the tone from beginning to end. While we are almost always aware of where Curtis et al actually are, the gradual dissolving of the boundaries between real and unreal is bizarre and wonderful. David Wingo’s haunting score and Adam Stone’s camerawork cannot be overpraised here.

As strong as the visuals and plot progression may be, there is no brighter star in Take Shelter than Michael Shannon. His internalized struggle brings out masterful use of body language and facial tics, evoking sympathies with the minutest of gestures. The sense of love and affection between Shannon and his wife and daughter is palpable, yet strained … and entirely heartfelt and realistic. Much of this is due to the strong turns of Chastain and the young Stewart, who make up for comparatively meager screen time with powerful emotions and general affability. For my money, neither Shannon nor Chastain have ever been better.

Finding faults in the film is incredibly difficult, though I will suggest that the ending is something of a misfire – its almost a bastardization of the true climax of the film, leaving an awkwardly ambiguous stamp on the film. I suppose it fits in with the overall feel of the film, but it still doesn’t quite fit within the plot’s progression.

Regardless, Take Shelter is easily one of the strongest films of 2011, and I would be shocked if it didn’t have Oscar nominations aplenty.

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Matt Brown
Admin

I felt the ending worked, as it pushed the storytelling completely into the realm of metaphor, and away from literalism. But that’s just me.

Tom Clift
Guest

Saw this at MIFF and really liked it – suspect I woud have loved it if it wasn’t the fourth film in a five film day. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the ending either, so I’ll see how I feel after a rewatch. Totally agree that this is a career high for both Shannon and Chastain. And those nightmare sequences were intense as hell

Louise
Guest

I hadn’t heard of Take Shelter until reading this review but it certainly looks good. I think this is definitely Jessica Chastain’s breakthrough year – she seems to be in everything. Will keep an eye out for its UK release.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

Really, really liked this film. I’d argue that being entire rational doesn’t completely eliminate the irrational (or Shannon’s heightened condition) thus there will always be ‘storms on the horizons’ for himself and his loved ones. I don’t take the ending of the film literally, any more than I take the ending of A Serious Man literally.

Either way, a very, very very good film that lives and dies by excellent performances.

rot
Guest

so the ending is a metaphor for what exactly? Seems fairly literal to me. I guessed the ending midway through the movie and was disappointed that it didn’t try to do more than that. It is a solid 3/5 movie for me, mostly the performances and the score kept me going. The repetition and sluggish pacing and being five steps ahead of it at all times was frustrating. The subject matter interests me a lot, the film doesn’t try to expand on it, in this respect I would say it does seem allegorical because of how simplistic it is. The film just feels too safe, the only complexity in how Chastain and Shannon elevate their performances out of very little to work with. Even on the level of experiencing the slippery slope of insanity, how much better would that be if the resonance of the insanity was more than stock cliches, but something forceful and capable of making the audience feel pulled to other side as well… something like Inland Empire is an example of pushing past the symbolic and making you feel it.

rot
Guest

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

“Really, really liked this film. I’d argue that being entire rational doesn’t completely eliminate the irrational (or Shannon’s heightened condition) thus there will always be ‘storms on the horizons’ for himself and his loved ones”

I guess that is what Matt was thinking of then, with the metaphor. I suppose I like that better than the literal but it is still doesn’t sit well. A Serious Man ending comes out of nowhere, it has a power to it because of that… this one is played over and over and over and then, how are we going to show the resolution of the characters, with the same symbolism. Feels flat to me.

Tom Clift
Guest

************SPOILERS**************

I loved the idea that the storms represented Shannon’s mental condition, but that’s why the ending didn’t really work for me. I agree with Kurt that it basically means “more trouble ahead”, but it did sort of undercut all the metaphor that came beforehand.

On a sidenote, I read the ending of the A Serious Man as completely literal.

rot
Guest

To its credit, it is a hard story to end without being gimmicky. I think from the synopsis and Michael Shannon my hopes were toward another Bug.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

The ‘another Bug,’ is a little film called KILLER JOE.

mmmm, fried chicken makes for an interesting metaphor…

Goon
Guest

I walked out of it after 80 minutes. I don’t dislike it like I disliked Drive, not at all, it didn’t make me feel angry. I just felt like I was getting nothing out of it for 80 minutes, and didn’t care to find out what happens, and didn’t care to give it any more time to win me over.

I did find it poorly paced, I did feel like the character wasn’t growing, he was this quiet weird guy at the start and through his bad experiences it didn’t really feel like he was getting weirder, and the stuff he was doing to build towards somewhere weren’t anything I was interested in. The dream sequences weren’t that terrifying or tense and I was just sitting through them waiting for him to wake up..

My “Okay, I’m done” moment was when he had the shelter put in and his friend is there, just about to give up his dog. The scene they have there, they’re just standing around, saying nothing, with lots of silence that for me wasn’t tense or subtextual. Just empty.

So I don’t know what to say, I didn’t feel like anything was really absolutely horrid, I was just beaten into apathy.

Goon
Guest

To further alienate myself, as I go through Michael Shannon’s filmography…. I don’t remember him an ANYTHING other than Revolutionary Road. I saw/detested BUG and I don’t even remember what he was like in that.

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