Take Shelter is a human tragedy about mental illness in an eerie horror-movie shell – or is it a slow-burn bait-and-switch thriller? The fact that it could be one or the other might seem to speak to a suitably ambiguous sensibility, but in truth, the film arrives at a fairly simple and easy conclusion that ultimately belies all that came before. Here is one of 2011’s most expertly mounted films that very quickly becomes one of its most thematically questionable in the closing moments. I love it…and yet I’m so disappointed.
At the center of the film are two gargantuan, mighty, powerhouse performances, unquestionably among the year’s best, both of which will likely go unnoticed come Oscar time. Michael Shannon is Curtis, a construction worker in rural Ohio who becomes increasingly plagued by random nightmares that soon build into increasingly apocalyptic visions. Jessica Chastain is Samantha, his loyal, centered wife who notices the way her husband is changing and becomes fearful for his safety – and their family’s. This is the kind of cinematic couple that creates immense empathy in an audience because we find natural strands of ourselves in the fiber of their relationship. He is loving and hard-working, but begins to lose his grip. She is solid and mature, the glue that holds the family together, a task that becomes more difficult as Curtis begins to fray at the edges. These two actors inhabit their characters with lived-in naturalism that becomes all the more potent as tension gradually builds throughout the film, eventually reaching shattering emotional depths. Their work can be matched but not surpassed by any other performance this year.
These characters drive a story that burns slow but reaches an emotional boiling point. Curtis starts having nightmares with unsettling after effects in his daily life. He dreams that the family dog bites his arm, and when he wakes up that arm aches for the rest of the day. He dreams that a storm ravages his quiet Ohio town, and wakes to ominous clouds looming on the horizon. The implications of each nightmare begin to affect Curtis’ interaction with the world around him, to the point that he isn’t sure if he is having legitimate premonitions or if he is going crazy.
Legitimate evidence points to the latter. Curtis’ mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was his age, and he now worries that a form of mental illness has been passed down to him. He hides this fear from Samantha, but the effects of his increasing paranoia are explicitly evident. Curtis risks his family’s financial security by taking out a loan to finance a massive reconstruction of an underground tornado shelter, and risks a very good construction job by using company materials to build it. For Samantha, who is depending on the insurance from Curtis’ job to help pay for cochlear implant surgery for their hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), such reckless decisions are every bit as horrifying as Curtis’ visions. And so we are made to question what is more threatening – Curtis’ premonitions or Curtis himself?
Take Shelter is the second feature from writer-director Jeff Nichols, who derives unbearable tension on multiple levels. Traditional suspense is abundant throughout the film, as each nightmare becomes more vivid and unsettling. But this screenplay also taps directly into the personal and societal fears that have mounted over the past few years, as economies have crumbled and nations have broken off into warring factions of extremism. We are living in a moment of international hysteria that is reaching a fever pitch, with some people throwing angry tea parties, others occupying various national institutions, certain self-identified prophets calling for the End of Days, and a lot of normal people caught in the middle, trying to make ends meet as those ends seem to be moving further and further apart. Take Shelter is an expression of that international hysteria on an intimate personal level, filtered through an indie-horror cinematic lens. We are made to fear elements of the unknown, but we are also made to fear the very tangible notion of financial ruin, familial discord, and mental breakdown.
The film builds over 100 extraordinary minutes, the performances searing our emotions and the screenplay testing the tensile strength of our inner will. Then the film shifts into its final gear, pulls off the throttle, and lets the air out of the balloon. I won’t give anything away, but I will note that after Curtis’ penultimate vision, when a legitimate storm breaks loose and the family holes up in Curtis’ remodeled shelter, that the script takes one very literal turn that leads to a bait-and-switch conclusion. After building for nearly two hours, the movie cuts out at a very traditional “gotcha!” conclusion that not only left me cold, but made me question the entire enterprise. Is this really all that the film amounts to?
Plenty of theories have been applied to the film’s final moments. I have yet to sift through all of them. I want to fully utilize my powers of deconstructionism to bend that ending to fit the film I loved for the first 100 minutes, but I fear the filmmaker’s intent may be all-too-literal.
Take Shelter left me ambivalent about its ultimate intentions, which leaves a gaping hole in my final analysis. Yet I also think back about the mastery of its slow burn and the brilliance of the work by Shannon and Chastain, and I know that this is one of the special films of 2011. It’s so infuriating that I’ll go crazy if I think about it any longer.
[notification type=”star”]79/100 - Take Shelter is undeniably one of the most powerful films of the year…and yet its conclusion left me so troubled that I’m not sure how to grade it.[/notification]