“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!” –King Lear, Act III, Scene 2
You know what’s a terribly overused cliche? Storms. Seriously, just try to count all the times you’ve heard the phrase “There’s a storm coming” as a means of saying that something big and bad is on its way. Dark clouds just over the horizon are used in a similar way all the time. Oh, and let’s not forget all the many times when torrential downpours are used to help create a foreboding mood. Personally, as a lifelong Oregonian who considers rain a constant companion and childhood friend, I think that storms get a bad rap. But I digress.
You know another cliche that’s way overused? Dream sequences. Yes, I know that the practice of using dream sequences to convey exposition, foreshadowing, symbolism, and character development goes back to the days of Ancient Greece, if not further. Nevertheless, it’s still a shortcut that’s too often abused by lazy storytellers.
So how could someone take these two worn cliches and use them to make an awesome character drama? Well, why not throw in some paranoid schizophrenia?
Take Shelter is the story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), who’s recently been coming down with night terrors. Every night, he keeps having vivid nightmares about people he loves getting killed, trying to kill him, or both. Now, Curtis knows that these are just dreams. We the audience know that they’re just dreams. They’re not real and there’s virtually no chance that they’ll ever come to pass. That said, imagine that you dreamed your dog had caught rabies and tried gnawing your arm off. Now imagine that the dream was so lifelike that your arm keeps feeling that pain all through the next waking day. That kind of thing would stick with you, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, Curtis can only cope with these nightmares by pushing away anyone and anything that’s ever tried to kill him in his sleep. Naturally, that includes friends and family. This would all be bad enough, except for one additional detail: For whatever reason, each of these night terrors begins with a storm. As such, Curtis has developed an acute phobia towards rain, wind, thunder, gray clouds, etc. He even hears thunder that doesn’t exist, and it scares the crap out of him.
To that end, Curtis becomes obsessed with developing and expanding the underground tornado shelter in his backyard. Not only does this shelter protect Curtis from any dangerous storms that may (but probably won’t) come by, but it also grants him an outlet for his paranoia and provides precious isolation. Isolation from anyone trying to hurt him, isolation from anyone that he might hurt, and isolation from the world that seems unable to help or understand him.
What makes the story even more tragic is that up until these nightmares started happening, Curtis has been leading a pretty good life. He’s got a sweet union job as a construction worker, he’s got a beautiful and loving wife, and he’s got an adorable young daughter. As far as I could tell, the only real problems he has are that Samantha (the wife, played by Jessica Chastain) only earns a modest income running a crafts booth on the weekends, and Hannah (the daughter, played by Tova Stewart) is at least mostly deaf. Oh, and Curtis’ mom was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her early 30s. Did I mention that Curtis himself is 35?
Our protagonist was only 10 when the men in white coats came for his mom, so he has a lot of unhappy childhood memories about being abandoned. He doesn’t want to do that to his family, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to spend more than half his life in a nursing home. By this point, the themes of the movie should be quite obvious.
The theme of security as an end in its paranoid self, rather than as a means to an end, is easily the most prominent in the movie. All well and good, but this film is unique in that it takes the extra step of making it explicitly clear that the threats are entirely in Curtis’ head. The guy could build himself an underground fortress, but he’d only be locking himself in with his own delirium. The same delirium, I’ll remind you, that he’s trying to deny for the sake of his family and for his pride. As such, the themes of denial and acceptance are also a tremendous part of this movie, not to mention the crux of Curtis’ development arc.
Also, I’m sure that there are a lot of connections to be made in regard to this post-9/11 world. Thankfully — though the movie makes its point loud and clear — these socio-political connections are never so much as hinted at and are left entirely to the audience’s interpretation.
I realize that this movie may not sound like anything special so far. Indeed, it may sound like pretty much any filmmaker could make a movie like this. But not every filmmaker has Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.
Given that the conflict for the movie is pretty much completely internal, this film needed a stellar leading man to play our protagonist. Fortunately, Michael Shannon does a masterful job of conveying fear, paranoia, confusion, and bullheaded determination, all barely kept in check by a sanity and a calm facade that could break at any moment. I think it’s really a testament to Shannon’s acting ability that it’s never quite clear where Curtis is heading as a character. Right up to the last minute, it’s impossible to tell if this story will have a happy ending or a sad one, simply because there’s no way of knowing if Curtis is strong enough to beat this when the time comes. It could easily go either way, but Shannon keeps making it easy to hope that this character will pull through. Also, on those moments when Curtis finally does break down, the results are simply amazing to watch.
Opposite him is Jessica Chastain. Now more than ever, I’m truly baffled that this woman was completely unknown just a year ago. I don’t know where she was before now, and I don’t know why she didn’t bother making awesome movies until 2011, but I’m glad she’s doing so now.
I know I’ve sung Chastain’s praises before, but this is the movie in which she makes the leap from a good actress to a truly great one. She does a superlative job of playing a woman who’s been perfectly content to be the homemaker up until now, until she has to step up and be the pillar of emotional support that her husband needs. This is a woman who truly goes through hell and back for her man. As much as she cries and yells at him, it’s only because Sam truly loves Curtis and wants the best for him. In Chastain’s hands, Sam becomes a wonderfully strong female lead who plays a tremendous part in Curtis’ development without completely taking over the picture. This is an Oscar-worthy performance from an actress who hasn’t even hit her stride yet, and that is staggering to me.
Last but not least is the third star of this movie, writer/director Jeff Nichols. He deserves a lot of credit for the rock-solid pacing, for the amazing direction he clearly gave to his cast, and for presenting his themes in ways that are heartbreaking without becoming hackneyed. Additionally,, Nichols deserves major kudos for blending fantasy with reality in a way that’s truly shocking and terrifying, but doing so in such a way that it’s easy for the audience to tell what’s real and what’s imaginary. In fact, the first act had an implicit sort of “dream/awake/dream/awake” pattern that I appreciated for its convenience and for the skill it took to craft. The movie also had a very haunting score that nicely added to the drama and to the dread. Best of all, Nichols put together a truly genius climax that resolves Curtis’ inner conflict in a brilliantly creative and conclusive manner. It’s a pay-off that’s amply worthy of all the set-up, and more.
Before wrapping up, I suppose I should address the ending. On the one hand, I think that the movie might have made more sense if it had ended two minutes earlier. On the other hand, I think that a movie about imaginary threats in the real world could only have ended on such an ambiguous note. Hell, in my opinion, it really wasn’t so ambiguous: I don’t see any reason to believe it wasn’t completely another dream. But I’m getting close to spoiler territory.
Take Shelter is easily one of the year’s best so far. The writing and direction are superb throughout, and the subject matter is presented in a manner that’s genuinely heartfelt and scary. The character drama is made even more compelling by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, both of whom deserve Oscar nominations at the very least. It’s a phenomenal film in every way, definitely not to be missed.