With thunderous performances by Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a mind blowing twister of mental illness, austerity America and the apocalypse.
A Mighty Storm by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A storm is coming. Or is it? A storm is coming. Or is it a dream?
You might have thought that a lack of distinction between reality and dream sequences might get repetitive or boring. But when it’s a film about paranoid schizophrenia, the absence of clarity feels strangely appropriate. The hallucinations and delusions Curtis suffers from all start with a mega-storm which brings an oily rain that turns loved ones and strangers alike into violent attackers. And as the twister season starts in Ohio, worlds collide as reality and dream dovetail each other and leave our lonely hero lost in a storm.
Curtis’ recurring nightmares begin to make his average Joe life increasingly unlivable. He wets the bed, sneaks out to the library to borrow books on mental illness and starts refitting his tornado shelter with a plumbed-in toilet and pedal-powered lights. His premonitions put his family in jeopardy – his marriage starts to fracture under the weight of his undisclosed disorder, their house becomes collateral against risky home improvement loans and his deaf daughter’s cochlear implant, paid for through health insurance benefits from his job as a drill rigger is threatened when he borrows a digger from work and gets the sack. But amidst the brewing storm, the most charged squall is the crack with his buddy Dewart, who he cuts loose at work and ends up in fisticuffs with at a social.
The scene is electric as Curtis prophesies a mighty and terrible storm in full fevered born-again fervour. His inescapable visions of the apocalypse collapse into tears, as he catches his daughter’s eye, the innocent he yearns to protect. And as such, Take Shelter is a sensitive but powerful exploration of mental illness – the hold of fantasy, the slow estrangement from his family and the brain storms that visit him nightly. But it’s also a fascinating glimpse of Obama’s America – fears of the economy looming large while assault paranoia and man’s god-given right to protect his family surge forth. As long as you don’t end up foreclosed, that is.
There are many strands of tension coursing through Nichols’ film. And after the family take flight one night into the storm shelter, wearing gas masks as protective totems against the raging unknown, only to emerge the next morning to a bright sunny day with only a few branches to clear up, Curtis is forced to admit his delusions are wrong and he needs help. But Nichols’ double ending is like thunder after the lightning. On holiday in Myrtle Beach the twisters gather and with a grim inevitability, oil drops from the sky. It’s a cruel vindication, there’s no comfort in being right, just a desperate fight for survival and a hurried flight back to the safety of the shelter. But with Curtis no longer able to trust his emotions, he’s reduced to a child, making sandcastles on the beach with Hannah and turning to Samantha to make the final decision.
With brilliant performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as the caught- in-a-storm parents clinging together, Take Shelter treats its dual themes of paranoid schizophrenia and the implosion of the American dream with tender sensitivity. Shannon’s fearful glances and reluctant mouth ticks seed an empathic interest in the viewer, almost willing the end of the world to come so that Curtis can be proved right. Visually stunning, in both Adam Stone’s cinematography and its visual effects, with birds careering to earth and flapping unwinged to death. With the narrative potential to dissolve into man-eating zombies and Armageddon, Nichols’ film is intelligently restrained – a caution which might disappoint some. But as a taut, sanity-questioning identity thriller, Take Shelter takes the end of the world by storm.
Take Shelter is released on 25th November 2011 in the UK