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Film Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011; Directed by Jeff Nichols)

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a Middle American masculine archetype. A working class male in rural Ohio, he’s got a lovely wife (Jessica Chastain) and a young daughter (Tova Stewart), a steady manual labour job with benefits and good buddies to drink with, a house, a yard, a dog, and a truck. It’s the American middle-class dream, more or less.

But his reality is more complicated than it initially seems. His daughter is deaf, he’s estranged from his brother (Ray McKinnon), his mother (Kathy Baker) has a history of mental illness and is confined to assisted care, and, most alarmingly, Curtis himself is having dreams and even daylight visions of a troubling, nigh-on apocalyptic nature.

In these imaginings (if that is what they are), massive storm clouds gather in the wide prairie sky, tornado funnels forming air quotes at their edges as they disgorge thick, viscous, oil-like rain. Flocks of black birds whirl overhead in ominous shifting clusters before plunging lifeless to the ground, a Biblical plague of the skies. Silhouetted figures assault his car and his house as he tries in vain to protect his daughter Hannah from the threat; in the latter dream, the furniture in his living room is briefly suspended in air as if in zero gravity. He’s attacked in dreams by his dog, his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), and is even forebodingly threatened by his wife Samantha in a particularly eerie sequence (the wonderfully naturalistic Chastain works wonders with another stock role).

Curtis, a strong, silent type perfectly suited to Shannon’s intense, stone-faced repressed temper, internalizes these anxieties in the best (worst?) stiff-lipped male tradition (his name does begin with “curt”, after all), but their effects increasingly ripple out into his behaviour and destabilize his life. He confines his dog to a pen, misses more and more time and acts irresponsibly at work, and detaches from and lies to Samantha and Dewart and his brother Kyle about the reasons for his actions. More than anything, though, Curtis is driven to expand and improve the subterranean storm shelter behind his home, even at the cost of his career and financial security and his personal relationships, the better to protect him and those he loves from the climatic cataclysm that his visions are anticipating.

Take Shelter is the second feature from Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, and firmly announces him as a young auteur worth watching. His film is a work of austere and intimate realism that is also a fantastical metaphor for the contracting conditions of American prosperity in the face of the economic crisis and the prevailing sense of insecurity engendered by capitalism without a safety net. This is to say nothing of the national security state’s encouragement of an atmosphere of constant fear and suspicion in the post-9/11 environment, although Nichols’ focus is more on the domestic, in both the residential and political senses of the word. With his very personal sense of secure normalcy deeply shaken, Curtis overcompensates with a siege mentality to preserve it. Has America reacted any differently to its own convergence of crises?

Curtis’ mental illness troubles the water of his life, but Nichols’ film is highly adept at dropping hints that the visions are not entirely in his head, and are very real indeed (and at dropping more than just hints of that, as the cracker of an ending demonstrates). With its depiction of bizarre, possibly supernatural happenings in heartland America, Take Shelter is sort of like a M. Night Shyamalan thriller with more subtlety and emotional integrity. That description may deflate it a bit in the estimations of many, but the curious can rest assured that it is meant in the most complimentary and indeed extolling manner possible. Take Shelter is memorably, forcefully tense and involving. If it’s not a new classic of American independent film, then it’s as close as it gets in the modern cinema.

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