Review: Take Shelter, 2011, dir. Jeff Nichols

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. 


16 thoughts on “Review: Take Shelter, 2011, dir. Jeff Nichols

  1. Yea I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. Leaving it up to the air would made you question everything you saw during the movie long after it was over. But the last 5 minutes only made me question one thing: What’s the point since he is so far away from his shelter now ahahah

    • Yeah, really. He must feel like a real schmuck horsing around on the beach with his shelter off in a whole other state.

      For me the film’s pretty literal; there’s not a lot of room for metaphoric interpretation of its events. That’s why I so strongly dislike the final image, though (***SPOILARZ OMG OMG OMG***) I would have REALLY liked it if the daughter had signed “storm”, and Curtis had looked up and seen nothing but clear skies. Ominous portents for his daughter’s future.(***RAR RAR NO MOAR SPOILARZ***)

    • Definitely stop by and let me know what you think of it once you’ve seen it. It’s really good overall; don’t let my reaction to the ending scare you off.

  2. I believe you and I have different views on the ending.

    Which is a major reason why this film is not as good as it could’ve been – in your eyes.

    • I think I’d be curious about how you saw the ending, then; I took the film very much at its word, in which case that last shot is really a huge “wadda tweest!” move by Nichols.

      • I must have seen the ending differently than you did. To me (SPOILERS) the hurricane off of shore was another one of Curtis’s dreams that are sprinkled throughout the film.(SPOILERS over)

        Like the dog incident and the truck accident. The ending, in my eyes anyway, was a hint to the audience that despite his family’s acceptance of his condition, it would not get better.

        • I could see the dream interpretation, but I didn’t get anything in that final shot that called back to the previous dream sequences Nichols showed us in the preceding hundred and fifteen minutes. In his dreams, he’s either in the thick of the storm immediately or he’s hit by it within moments of the dream starting; in that last scene he’s basically on the outskirts, and that aside I don’t recall it being shot the same as the clear-cut dream sequences.

          Maybe I’ll go back and watch it again, but everything about the tone and style of the dreams makes me think the ending isn’t a dream. If it’s not a dream, then Nichols is kind of pulling a bait-and-switch on us, I think.

          • If it isn’t a dream, I feel okay with the ending still. The storm being seen by the family means they are willing to stand by him and make it together.

            • While I do like that take, I still have problems with the ending being real and not a dream. At least you have me convinced of its thematic resonance, though!

  3. Nice review! I think you nailed the film’s good and bad points exactly, though I also disagree your view of the ending. And I would definitely have this movie under the subheading of horror, with one scene being the most wordlessly terrifying scene I’ve seen in a film in many moons.

    I can understand your frustration at Nichols’ refusal to pick a camp and stay in it to the end, (the result being that some viewers felt “A Beautiful Mind”ed or at worst, “The Village”d) but I found myself reading a subtext (that admittedly may not have been intentional) about choosing between trusting one’s instincts vs. trusting appearances, however concrete they might seem. Curtis’s particular affliction runs in my family and he exhibits some classic symptoms, (except the late 30’s onset, though that apparently was genetic) but at the same time, the unchanging nature of his delusion and the effects of his medication made me question the validity of the diagnosis, though not the symptoms. Your question of Curtis’s reliability can easily be translated into a personal question that each person at some point will ask themselves, for something large or small. Can I trust myself or am I just insane? Granted, usually, if a person is hearing things, having vivid nightmares and having trouble separating dreams from reality, they are insane. But I liked that Nichols “tricked” his audience, choosing to show that sometimes instincts are right, but even so, some things are inevitable. Maybe it doesn’t test well, but it personally appealed to me.

    The inevitability of Curtis’s downward spiral is another thing I liked that ran through the course of the movie, but I feel that was more obvious.

    • I think that subtext you note is present throughout the rest of the film, too, and in fact plays a big part in Curtis’ breakdown as he’s unsure whether he should trust Sam and everyone else trying to help him, or if he should trust his delusions. Not knowing what to believe in or accept would drive anybody nuts, even without the family history of behavioral health issues. Where do you turn to when you can’t rely on your loved ones or what you see with your own two eyes?

      What really bothers me about the end is that it’s Nichols going against his own word. Ambiguity is great– I’m a huge fan of grey– but everything about that final shot suggests reality, which is incongruous with the climax we’ve just witnessed. Maybe, as I mentioned to Colin, I need to watch the film again, but to me nothing about the scene indicates a break in reality, at least as we’ve seen in Curtis’ dreams and hallucinations. No one’s trying to kill Curtis and his family. The rules of gravity aren’t being broken. Time is moving at the right pace, and so on. So when the film ends, I’m left with a really clear feeling that what I’m seeing is real, but that goes against the established truth that Curtis is delusional and also disrespects the emotional catharsis he experiences coming out of the storm shelter. I will say, though, that if ambiguity had been a stronger factor throughout the rest of the plot I don’t know that I would have minded that ending quite as much.

  4. Your assessment is well thought out.

    I really liked this film a great deal. The movie that it made me think of the most is A Serious Man, not just the similarity of the ending, but the overall tone of the entire film. I saw both of these films in a more metaphorical sense when taken on the whole, with good realistic story telling and character development.

    Sad Songs Blogfest (I’m a day early I know)
    A Faraway View
    An A to Z Co-host blog

    • Thanks Arlee, and great connection between this and A Serious Man. They’d make a great double feature, though I suspect for me what would stand out most would be the difference in how Nichols and the Coens treat their characters (e.g. Nichols seems to care about Curtis whereas the Coens historically do not like their characters).

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