Take Shelter - Michael Shannon and Tova Stewart
Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Hannah (Tova Stewart) with her back to camera © 2011 Grove Hill Productions

Michael Shannon gives one of the year’s most emotionally devastating performances in this minimalist but intensely moving character study. Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar suburban dad who fears that his realistic hallucinations and night terrors are early indicators of mental illness. Jessica Chastain is equally impressive as Curtis’ frustrated and confused wife Samantha.

Upset by realistic visions of gathering thunderclouds, tornados and threatening strangers, Curtis becomes obsessed with expanding the small storm cellar behind his house. His compulsively irrational actions jeopardize his job, and he puts his family in debt with a dangerously reckless loan the bank warns him against taking.

Grounding the film in current American economic conditions, one of the family’s biggest concerns is the possibility of losing their health insurance. Curtis and Samantha’s deaf young daughter has an appointment six weeks away for surgery that could restore her hearing. Also, Curtis faces the Catch-22 dilemma of knowing he needs counseling and medication that he won’t be able to afford if his psychiatric problems end up costing him his job and its benefits.

Take Shelter - Jessica Chastain
Samantha (Jessica Chastain) © 2011 Grove Hill Productions

What makes Curtis tragic as well as pathetic is that he is aware of the fact that his actions are self destructive and can’t be explained in a way that makes sense. Because his mother was diagnosed decades earlier with schizophrenia and resides in an assisted-living facility, Curtis has personal experience with the warning signs of the disease. Kathy Baker portrays his mother Sarah with concern and restraint, as opposed to showy movie-style madness.

Take Shelter‘s sense of quietly oppressive dread has a lot in common with the dreamlike ambience of this year’s earlier The Tree of Life, but without that muddled movie’s abstractly expressionistic loopiness (or dinosaurs). Chastain plays a similarly put-upon wife and mother in both films, coping with uncommunicative husbands who end up unemployed and adrift. Take Shelter also includes many poetic visual images that wouldn’t have been out of place in Terrence Malick’s film, such as a massive flock of birds wheeling in formation, trees slowly moving in the wind and a daylight field sparkling with fireflies.

This is only the second feature by writer/director Jeff Nichols (his first was 2008’s Shotgun Stories). Its elegantly understated look and introspective performances are a welcome change from Hollywood’s typical domestic-drama histrionics. The movie’s genuinely disturbing moments range from horrific nightmare violence to the chillingly eerie sight of Curtis witnessing a lightning storm while wondering aloud, “Is anyone seeing this?”

Frustratingly, Take Shelter continues beyond what would have been a perfect end point with a final scene that undercuts the movie’s real-world credibility. A Twilight-Zone-style zinger is exactly what Take Shelter didn’t need. The wrongheaded twist is like something a stereotypical behind-the-scenes know-nothing would suggest during a production meeting — or like something Nichols should have been talked out of using by someone who wasn’t a know-nothing.

That flaw isn’t enough to ruin this otherwise excellent movie, but it’s too bad Take Shelter had to end under an unnecessary black cloud.

[Rating:4 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.