The opening sequence of Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter is the first of many nightmares protagonist Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) will have over the course of the movie. That it is a dream isn’t immediately obvious, although it’s clear that something is off. Curtis stands alone in his backyard, as if he were the last person left in the world. He stares at the dark clouds that gather in the distance, unnaturally turning and twisting, a storm that threatens to engulf everything. Then it starts raining, a yellowish rain so thick it feels, as Curtis will describe it later, like “fresh motor oil.” The camera lingers for a while on the rain flowing down Curtis’s hand, before cutting to a profile of Curtis, awake, head down under the shower, trying to wash the nightmare away. The sound of the shower, though, is indistinguishable from that of the rain (there’s actually a subtle shift a few seconds before the cut from one scene to the other, but good luck catching it on first viewing), and your brain is tricked into not registering the scene change for a couple seconds. Curtis is still very much trapped in his nightmare, and we’re trapped with him.
Had Take Shelter been released here just a few weeks earlier, it would have ended up near the very top of my best of 2011 list. Nichols’s masterpiece (there, I said it) is smart and affecting, beautifully shot, and put together with incredible skill and care. Above all, Take Shelter is fearless. Here’s a film, and a filmmaker, prepared to follow their main character all the way down the path to madness and self-inflicted alienation. That first dream awakens something in Curtis, a 35-year-old construction worker living in a small Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. The nightmares come back and back again, and with them comes a fear that some catastrophe is about to happen, some unnatural and vicious storm is about to sweep down and take everything away from him. Or perhaps Curtis is just losing his mind, a prospect no less frightening.
“It’s not just a dream,” Curtis says at some point, “it’s a feeling.” One of the most impressive achievements of Take Shelter resides in the way that feeling, of dread and impending disaster, is communicated from Curtis to the viewer. Curtis’s nightmares are vivid, and although you quickly come to recognize them as dreams as soon as they start, they never stop being terrifying. They all play on the same primal fear, that of something that you can’t control happening and turning your whole world upside down, your best friends into savage enemies. No less scary is Curtis’s waking life, which starts slipping more and more out of his control. Michael Shannon delivers an extraordinary performance; he’s a man walking on the edge of a precipice, constantly wondering whether it wouldn’t be best to just jump, his anxiety and desperation almost palpable as he tries to hold on to his life and his family.
He does so at first by pretending that everything is fine, resorting to the age-old male tactic of not acknowledging a problem in the hopes it will go away on its own. He goes to see a counselor, but says nothing of it to his wife, and mentions neither his dreams nor his fears to her. “I didn’t want you worrying about it,” he says when she confronts him about all the money he’s sinking into the house’s old tornado shelter. But of course she can’t help but worry. That Curtis isn’t fine is obvious, and his silence and occasional outbursts, far from keeping his family together, are threatening to tear it apart. It comes as no surprise when one of the film’s very best scenes begins with Curtis telling Sam, “I haven’t been honest with you.” And if Michael Shannon is amazing as Curtis, it’s Chastain that holds the movie together (just like it’s Sam that holds the family together), with a subtle performance that beautifully responds to and complements Shannon’s.
One of the many small pleasures of Take Shelter is the way the screenplay, also written by Nichols, never hits you over the head with exposition. Although the fact that the film is set in a post-economic crisis America is vital to the plot (especially if one considers that the storm Curtis dreams of may not be a literal one), the LaForches’ economic situation is dealt with obliquely, through a series of subtle visual markers and throwaway lines. Whether it’s Curtis paying close attention to how much gas he’s pumping into his car or Sam haggling with a customer and keeping her savings in a small metal box, we understand that money is a concern long before the topic is actually broached. In one of my favorite scenes, Curtis, who has just come home late at night, stands in the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, watching her sleep, when Sam comes out of her own bedroom, stands beside Curtis, and drapes his arm around her shoulder. “It’s funny,” Curtis says, “I still take off my boots so I won’t wake her up.” “And I still whisper,” Sam says. This tells us that Hannah’s deafness was only recently diagnosed (which becomes relevant to the plot later on), without taking anything away from a sweet and touching scene with unwieldy exposition.
The gorgeous cinematography by Adam Stone (who also worked on Nichols’s debut, Shotgun Stories) only adds to the elemental terror the film evokes. The clear Ohio skies suddenly fill with dark swirling clouds and flocks of birds flying in strange circular shapes, or with lightning that Curtis may or may not be the only one to see. But as scary as Curtis’s visions of apocalypse may be, in the end you may find yourself not so much afraid that he may be right, but that he may be wrong. For madness would be just another sort of nightmare, and one he would have to face alone.