The usual through line for family movies about mental or physical disabilities involves the struggle of the family to care and love for a disabled person. “Take Shelter” however considers that were a father to suffer a mental illness, he may lose his masculinity and his ability to care for his family. For all this to come in a riveting, often surreally brilliant psychological thriller shows the intense bravura filmmaking at play in Jeff Nichols’s film.
Like Nichols’s first film “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” finds depth and character in its vivid slice of Americana living. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). They’re a happy family, and although they seek surgery to correct their daughter’s hearing, they do so not because they can’t manage but because she’s not playing with the other kids as much as she could be. Curtis and Samantha’s love for her is summed up in one beautiful moment as they watch her sleep. “I still take off my boots so I won’t wake her up,” Curtis says. “I still whisper,” Sam adds.
But Curtis feels his capacity to be the father he should be is in jeopardy. He starts having dreams in which a storm of biblical proportions is nearing, and it causes his loved ones to attack him. In one dream his dog ferociously bites his arm, and Curtis cages him outside. In another his best friend Dewart (Shannon’s “Boardwalk Empire” costar Shea Whigham) fights him, and Curtis gets him transferred to a different crew at work.
Nichols seamlessly weaves special effects into this simple landscape, blurring the lines between what Curtis perceives and what is really in front of him. For him, dark, rippling clouds are always looming, birds spiral in hypnotic patterns and the rain and lightning is so dense that it seems to engulf us.
The clever aspect of the screenplay is that the terrors don’t just surround Curtis figuratively. His daughter’s disability already gives him pause, but we learn before long that his mother too has spent years of her life in a nursing home suffering from schizophrenia. Is Curtis really suffering a spell, or is he causing his own distress? The movie’s lack of melodrama and careful ambiguity keep us rapt and guessing.
But the physical shelters Curtis builds to block out the imagined ones start to have an impact on his home life in ways he was precisely trying to prevent. When he takes out a loan and uses equipment from work to expand a tornado shelter in his backyard, “Take Shelter” wonderfully pits Curtis’s mentality against his way of life. It’s a powerful metaphor captured in a realistic story.
Chastain’s womanly realism and Shannon’s earthy substance elevate “Take Shelter” to that of an indie Americana masterpiece. Shannon plays much of the film in more reserved moments, but he shows as much intense, insane, outrageous and unbridled range as any actor today or ever. He has a solid, stoic face but eyes that show his mind quivering. His pensive gaze and late night conversations with his wife seem to ask that amidst the home he knows so well, he can’t really be alone, can he?