As a father of two young children and an admitted worrywort when it comes to their protection, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my identification with and sympathy for star Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Curtis, the quiet-mannered, disturbed breadwinner at the heart of writer-director Jeff Nichols’ stunning new film, would compromise my objectivity. After all, when a movie’s protagonist devotes a dangerous amount of energy to the purchase of gas masks and plumbing for a storm shelter add-on – a development that freaks out all who care for him – and you think, “What’s all the fuss about?” well, it’s possible you’re watching Take Shelter from the wrong side.
Lucky for me, then, that judgment is not on Nichols’ agenda. Instead, his Curtis is intended as a completely rational, admirably proactive participant in his own mental breakdown. He’s a hard worker at a construction job that’s provided some amount of stability for him, his dependable wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter. Things are going well, too, a friend reassures Curtis toward the beginning: He and Samantha are heavily involved in sign language classes and have even managed to untangle the insurance nightmare to get their daughter on the list for a cochlear implant.
That’s when the storm comes, or at least the one in Curtis’ mind. It’s a full-on apocalyptic shower, too, one consisting of viscous rain and swarms and terror. These come most often in nightmares (though they’re increasingly imposing on his waking life) that also feature scenes of horrific violence being inflicted on his daughter while he stands helpless or is otherwise restrained. Again, it happens. It’s a dad thing.
Curtis, however, has reason to panic. His mother still resides in the elderly care facility where she’s required special assistance due to an early-age mental breakdown. Worse, the dreams take a physical toll on him and his daytime visions threaten his employment – exactly the kind of disaster that could topple his house of cards.
As a portrait of a man on the verge of losing everything, Shannon is remarkable. His stoicism feels environmental, rendering his withdrawal naturalistic rather than manufactured. And it’s not like he doesn’t seek help; he sees a doctor and a counselor, reads literature on schizophrenia and, eventually, comes clean with his wife. Even his most evident warning sign – the elaborate renovation of a storm shelter in the backyard – is done with at least one eye on reality. How many manic episodes portrayed in the movies are preceded by the securing of a home-improvement loan? If Roy Neary’s mashed potato mounds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been commissioned by an outsider-art foundation, would he have lost his family over them?
But the storm gets worse for Curtis, as they must, and things go downhill quickly for him, though not for the filmmaker – Nichols stays on top of the material like an overprotective father and guides it (mostly) away from Jacob’s Ladder grandiosity. Indeed, Take Shelter is a captivating portrait of where we are now, or at least where most working families are – one crisis away from obliteration. Although mostly reactive, though not as much as in The Tree of Life, Chastain gives the best performance of her very busy year, and there may be no more thrillingly down-to-earth moment than when she finally stands by her man. But it’s Shannon’s film, and it’s in safe hands with the formidable actor. His tense body language, terse communication and his desire to will out of existence his own self-destruct button is a beautiful encapsulation of the times.