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Take Shelter

A slow-burner that's as much about our troubled times as it is about one troubled man

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A storm's coming: Michael Shannon
  • A storm's coming: Michael Shannon

Early on in Jeff Nichol's slow-burning Take Shelter, a co-worker tells Curtis (Michael Shannon) that he's lucky to have a good life. And Curtis does have a steady job, a loving wife and daughter, a dog and a cozy home in rural Ohio. But things aren't good with Curtis: He's been having nightmares that suggest a terrible sort of storm is coming, one with both apocalyptic weather and mind-alerting properties.

Curtis keeps quiet, while his dreams worsen and begin to blur the line between his waking and sleeping states. He prepares for the worst, building and stocking a shelter in his yard, while his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), best friend (Shea Whigham) and brother (Ray McKinnon) looks on baffled.

Though small-scale and indie-ish in nature, Take Shelter is a powerful, provocative multi-faceted film. On one hand, it's a nuanced portrait of mental illness and its devastating impact on the individual, family and even community. Or it could be a supernatural thriller; what if Curtis is right? And it's inescapably a study of contemporary anxiety, as the working-class Curtis juggles 21st-century realities: bills, marital tensions, a child with special needs, the health-care system, and even weather that seems weirder than it used to be.

Regardless of the real truth, Curtis' increasing panic is about protecting what is most important, his family. Much of Take Shelter occurs in and reinforces the domestic sphere and its comforts: As Curtis builds the shelter, Samantha cooks, minds their child, embroiders household linens to sell for pin money. As Curtis' panic and/or madness grows, it's unclear, even to him whether the greater threat to his loved ones is from the outside, or from within him. It's an existential battle, where complete collapse seems just one event (or storm) away.

Nichols, who made a nice debut with 2007's Shotgun Stories, handles this tricky material with restraint. Despite the intensity of Curtis' dream sequences, Take Shelter is never baroque. In fact, it's slowly paced and frequently very quiet, but always keens with growing tension. Much of the film's power comes from great performances from Shannon (most recently seen as the slightly unhinged Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire) and, Chastain (The Tree of Life), as his angry, confused and fiercely loving wife.

Take Shelter's themes are open-ended (as is the ending, which may be confounding), but this film, with its everyday anguishes writ large, resonated in my brain for some time.  I even found Curtis' freaky dreams mixed up in one of my own. Times are indeed anxious.

Take Shelter
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Starts Fri., Dec. 30. Regent Square

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