October 14, 2011
By Marc Glassman
Jeff Nichols, director and scriptwriter
Starring: Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Tova Stewart (Hannah), Kathy Baker (Sarah)
Life is getting mighty grim in the United States, where the economy has taken a terrible beating since 2008. While we’ve been living in a comparative bubble of prosperity in Toronto’s GTA, people in many regions in the States are struggling to make ends meet. The recession hasn’t turned into a depression yet but many Americans, particularly in the Mid-West and South are quite concerned about their future.
That’s the environment in which Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ moody drama, is played out. Curtis LaForche is a construction worker in a small Ohio town. He has a beautiful wife, Samantha and a young daughter, Hannah, who is hearing impaired and needs special educational assistance. Curtis works with his best buddy Dewart and has a good relationship with his brother and the rest of the folks–clergy, teachers–in the community. Obviously, he’s dealing with issues around Hannah and concerns about his job, but he is a solid member of the American working class.
Then Curtis starts having nightmares. Cyclones and hurricanes have rarely hit the Mid-West in recent times but they begin to take place with great ferocity in Curtis’ dreams. The rock solid church going middle American finds it increasingly hard to distinguish between nightmares and reality. The two seem to merge as grey skies darken in Ohio–and in Curtis’ head.
Making matters worse for Curtis is that when he was young, his mother Sarah had abandoned the family and fled, a victim of schizophrenia. When she was brought back to Ohio, Sarah was placed in an institution. One of the strongest scenes in Take Shelter is when Curtis, tough and restrained but filled with good thoughts, goes to visit his Mother, still sad and vulnerable after all these years. The two are filled with unresolved feelings for each other, which neither can express: Sarah is too humiliated and Curtis, too afraid of allowing his emotions to be laid bare.
Samantha reacts to Curtis’ gradual strangeness with anger: she doesn’t grasp what’s happening to him. Neither does Dewart, his pal and workmate, who ends up helping him build a fallout shelter on weekends with their employer’s machinery.
When the construction company finds out, Curtis is fired. Calamity feeds calamity as Samantha finds it harder and harder to cope with the odd man who has taken possession of her husband. Dewart and Curtis have a fist fight at a community dinner. And then a cyclone hits…
Take Shelter is a film that derives much of its power from the astonishing performances of its leads Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. Shannon, a tall, strong man with brooding features could well become this generation’s Burt Lancaster. He’s riveting as Curtis–a good man who can’t get a grip on his life despite valiant efforts. Chastain is the “it” girl for 2011: already a force as the life-giving soulful mother in Tree of Life, Coriolanus‘ beleaguered wife in Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, the sensual small town Southern pariah in The Help and a mysterious Mossad agent in The Debt. Now, she’s a sincere, strong-willed wife, fighting for her family–and Chastain is, once again, completely convincing.
Take Shelter is more of an emotional character study than a full-blown drama. But there’s enough impact here for the film to have garnered two awards at Cannes 2011–the Critics’ Week’s Grand Prix and a FIPRESCI (international film critics) Prize. It’s a film that will stay in your mind–and dreams–for weeks after you’ve seen it.