The film grabs the viewer from the beginning and won’t let go. Shannon, as a normal husband and father, works on a drilling crew. His daughter is deaf, and he does his best to work to communicate with her as she is prepared for implant surgery. But then Shannon starts to have bad dreams. Really bad dreams. They involve storms and someone familiar to him attacking him. At first it’s the dog, then a friend and co-worker. These dreams spook Shannon so much that he starts to go off the boil.
Normally dreams in films are problematic, and the “it’s only a dream” scene is a cliche. But Nichols largely avoids this. When Shannon awakes from a horrible dream, it’s not so much to give us a “whew” feeling, but instead increase the dread. We become aware of Shannon’s problems at the same pace he does. When he starts to hear thunder when there is nothing but blue skies, he understands there is something wrong just as we do.
Shannon visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the same age he is now. He checks out books from the library and sees a counselor. Yet he is still consumed by expanding a storm shelter in the backyard of his rural Ohio home. This creates all sorts of problems with both his employer and his wife (Jessica Chastain, who has been in every movie I’ve seen this year, it seems, and good in all of them). He takes out a risky loan to build it, and even a visit from his no-nonsense older brother (Ray McKinnon, in an effective scene) can’t dissuade him from believing that a horrible storm is coming.
There is so much good about this film that it seems wrong to pinpoint one aspect of it that makes it succeed, but I must start with Michael Shannon’s performance. Shannon often plays men who are not right in the head, so I was worried that it would be a performance like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining, where the actor’s previous reputation made it impossible to buy him as a normal person. But Shannon is completely convincing as an average Joe, and his breakdown is played in subtle, close-to-the-vest fashion. We understand each move he makes to understand what’s wrong with him, but also feel for him as his obsession overwhelms him. He only erupts once in the film, and when he does it makes it all the more powerful.
After watching this film, I’m wondering how I’ll react to the next big storm.
My grade for Take Shelter: A