Part of me wants to classify Jeff Nichols’ sophomore effort at least partially as horror. Not in the exploitative slashing sense, of course, but more in the vein of Polanski or Friedkin. The aptly dubbed Take Shelter blends highbrow artistic filmmaking and storytelling with moments of utterly numbing terror– apocalyptic visions revolving around monstrous storms and visually obscured aggressors. The film never goes to a place where it takes on the guise of an absolute horror production, but the sense of dread cultivated by these nightmare sequences pervades the entirety of Take Shelter‘s narrative. If Nichols’ picture contents itself with only toeing the horror line, it at least does so effectively enough that that gripping sense of foreboding and distress lingers all the way through to Take Shelter‘s climax.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Nichols’ isn’t simply trying to scare us; he’s fashioning a portrait of an American man slowly succumbing to his delusions of catastrophic storms. That man is Curtis (Michael Shannon), a construction worker compelled to make renovations and fortifications to an old storm shelter in his backyard due to the vivid nature of his nightmares and hallucinations. Take Shelter follows no course other than one of observation as Curtis keeps mum about the truth to his friends and family, and so sinks deeper into the psychosis he’s inherited from his schizophrenic and institutionalized mother; all the while, he attempts to maintain a facade of normalcy while on the job, where he works alongside his friend Dewart (Shea Wigham), and at home to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, in one of her many 2011 appearances) and their young, deaf daughter.
Nothing, of course, is so easy as all of that; naturally the mental strain Curtis suffers from his prophetic and disturbing dreams ends up seeping into facets of his waking life. And so Take Shelter goes, bit by bit increasing Curtis’ anxiety levels and ratcheting up his manic behavior, building toward a final confrontation with his fears and with reality. Largely, Nichols’ slow-burning efforts are successful. Take Shelter is deliberate, considered stuff, a film which favors a measured path of progression through its narrative to allow as much time as needed for its protagonist to gradually unravel and come completely undone. Nichols very clearly means to waste nothing and only provide his audience with what’s necessary to move his plot forward; admirably, he strives for careful, meticulous craftsmanship from the first frame until the credits roll.
While he certainly hits the mark, he’s not entirely successful in that laudable goal. If Take Shelter suffers in any technical realm, it’s editing; somewhere in the production process, the film needed a small but very concise trimming to remove excess fat and render the entire picture as lean as possible. Notably, Nichols over-emphasizes elements of plot and character detail for no appreciable sense of gain; in other words, his movie restates the established facts when it should just trust in the attention span of its audience members. We’re told, for example, that Curtist’ mother is a schizophrenic; we’re told that her behavioral health disorder manifested when she was in her thirties; we’re told that Curtis, too, is in his thirties; and we’re told that Curtis’ insurance will pay for his daughter’s cochlear implants, though that conversation at least evolves. It’s pointless repetition of the highest order.
I admit that I may be nitpicking. Put simply, those reiterative moments do not drive the film off of the rails. They merely act as a dead weight, causing the film to drag in fits and spurts when its freedom of movement should be unhindered. Regardless of its bad habit of restating what we already know, Take Shelter is a sharp piece of cinema made with otherwise sterling care. There’s something about the way the picture is composed, paced, and strung together that feels indefinably classical; it’s not ponderous, but it is made with calculated intent and purpose. More often than not, every shot feels like it has a reason for being, contributing to the sense of isolation fostered about Shannon’s character and in doing so creating a heightened sense of desperation for his situation. The truth is that more than anything, it’s Curtis who segregates himself; he shares a bed with Samantha and yet they’re miles apart.
Take Shelter feels very much like an attempt at assembling a portrait of modern man (at least, I assume modern; it’s tough to pin down when Take Shelter takes place, though the ubiquity of cell phones suggests something close to now). Accepting that premise, then most of the heavy lifting in that endeavor is placed on the shoulders of Michael Shannon, and if it feels something like a gimme to cast him in the role of a person slowly becoming unbalanced then take solace in the knowledge that his work here represents some career-best stuff. Put simply, he’s incredible, delivering the kind of jaw-dropping performance that makes a film worth watching on its own merits; all of the Curtis’ fear translates to us with astonishing clarity, and ultimately it never feels as though Take Shelter is about our detached observation of his crumbling sanity. Rather, we feel like we’re there at ground zero with him. Shannon is in turns vulnerable, frightening, stoic, and heartfelt, truly bringing to life a character for the ages.
I think, too, that Nichols came within a hair’s breadth of making a timeless movie destined to become a new American classic; had he trimmed five minutes or so off of Take Shelter‘s denouement, I think the film’s fate would have been assured. But he stumbles, and in doing so behaves with dishonesty that calls the rest of the picture into question. Is Curtis a reliable narrator, or is his psychosis a genuine obstacle to him relaying the truth to us? In a way the ending makes the rest of the movie feel like Nichols waving one hand around for an hour and fifty minutes so as to distract us from seeing what he’s doing with the other; it’s a trick, a cheat, a serious mar on an otherwise wonderful work. The better aspects of Take Shelter remain intact nonetheless, but it’s a shame to realize we’d be having a different conversation entirely had Nichols chosen to stay the course here.