Review: Take Shelter

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Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is one the best insights into mental illness I’ve ever seen on screen. Or is it? One of the most tantalizing things about this excellent film is that we’re never sure whether the lead character is slipping into paranoid schizophrenia or is, in fact, a prophet. Nichols’ screenplay, direction, and Michael Shannon’s beautiful and stunning potrayal all combine to make this film gripping and suspenseful.

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

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

3 responses »

  1. Good review. I liked it as much as you did.

    I think the fundamental reason the movie works is that Curtis knows all too well how disturbed he is. So often in movies that deal with subject matter like this, people are completely oblivious to their mental illness while friends and family just stand around fretting helplessly. It’s unusual to see the disturbed character himself check books out at the library about mental illness and do his own research.

    And that makes some of the dream sequences legitimately frightening – he’s as scared as we are. And not just scared in the generic sense that scary things are happening, but scared in the sense that he knows full well that one way or another, something is very wrong with him.

    SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! What did you make of the ending? I’ve read a couple of complaints that it was too vague, but I took it as a sign that he had reconciled himself psychologically with his wife. He had the earlier dream about her, which he didn’t really know how to interpret; certainly there were threatening elements, but she didn’t attack him like the dog or his friend. Then, she basically forced him to open the shelter doors against his will, and he was obviously confused when that turned out OK. Then his final dream, when she can see the storms like his daughter had always been able to, showed that she had fully won over his trust. Implicitly, then, this shows that he accepts his illness and will submit to treatment that she wants for him.

    Very elegant conclusion, I thought.

  2. My interpretation of the ending is far more literal, but I have no problem with yours. I simply thought that the ending was to make us think that maybe he was right all along, and that was some sort of apocalyptic storm on the way.

  3. He mopes around, has bad dreams, wakes from those bad dreams, and then an hour into the film, his wife is for some reason inexplicably present now and he sits down and TELLS her all the dreams and then he mopes some more to build his shelter, he’s a prick to everyone, he has a great scene at a dinner (with excellent acting) and then everyone mopes some more and there’s an *inexplicable* storm at the end.
    Again…he spent an hour of this movie *waking up from dreams*. And then he recounts those dreams…and then he flips a table. And every other shot is the little girl in someone’s arms, looking away from the camera. After a while I wondered if the director was always saying ‘no, sweetheart, don’t look at the camera’.

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