Imagine if Terrence Malick filmed a Russell Banks novel as adapted by Don DeLillo. Thats the best way that I can think of to describe Take Shelter, the 2011 film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter is a brilliant movie, maybe my favorite of the past year, managing to combine Malicks feel for the terrible beauty of nature (though for Nichols the terror seems to outweigh the beauty), Bankss sense of how to be working class in America is to be at the mercy of forces far beyond your control, and DeLillos ability to make paranoia and dread seem the only sane response to modern life.
Take Shelter explores the tenuous border between madness and mysticism, insanity and insight. The movie opens with a very Malick-like shot: we look upward at the sky, seeing trees blowing gently in the wind, hearing their leaves rustling as David Wingos score plays in the background. This natural beauty is then quickly replaced by a shot of a tall, lanky man, standing alone and staring intently at the sky, framed and indeed overshadowed by his suburban surroundings (a white house with a garage, a car and a pickup truck, an island of nicely tended bark mulch). Nichols holds the shot for a good six seconds, and then cuts to the sky again. But this time, instead of seeing the sky peeking through the trees, we see the trees dwarfed by the skya sky in which apocalyptic-looking storm clouds mass in the distance. The heavens open up, pouring down rain that is the color and consistency of motor oil. As the solitary man closes his eyesin fear, confusion, or acceptance, we cant quite tellthe screen cuts to the same man with his eyes closed in the shower. Was this vision of a hellacious storm a memory, a dream, or a preternatural vision? We cant be sure, and the rest of the movie will examine, with increasing drama, just how terrible this uncertainty can be.The man in the rain, played by Michael Shannon, is named Curtis LaForche, and his life, though touched by pain, seems to be a happy one. He and his gentle, beautiful wife, Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain), live in Elyria, Ohio, and theirs is a loving marriage. His young daughter, Hannah, is adorable; shes also deaf, a condition that the family struggles to accept. (As Curtis relates, he still takes his shoes off before coming up to bed at night for fear of waking his sleeping daughter.) Curtis is a construction worker, and he has recently been promoted to the position of foreman. Though money is tightSamantha sells hand-embroidered linens on the weekends in order to save for a family vacationthe LaForches are getting by. As Curtiss best friend and coworker Dewart says over beers one night, Youve got a good life, Curtis. I think thats the best compliment you can give a man: take a look at his life and say, Thats good.But Curtis hides a secret, and not the kind you might expect: theres no infidelity, no gambling or drinking. Rather, Curtis has dreams (of which the opening shot is one), incredibly vivid, incredibly haunting dreams in which the world appears to be approaching a violent end. They always announce themselves with the motor oil rain, they always involve thunder and lightning and funnel clouds, and they grow increasingly violent. In one of his earliest dreams, Curtis is attacked by his dog; in another, Dewart runs a pickax through his leg; in another, his daughter is snatched from his truck by hordes of creatures that resemble zombies. These visions begin to bleed into Curtiss waking life: he sees birds flying in strange formations while at work, and he feels estranged from his wife after one particularly terrifying dream involving her and a butcher knife.These visions feel so frightening, so true, that Curtis begins to build out his familys storm shelter, preparing for the apocalypse that he knows is impossible but that he feels is imminent. Unbeknownst to Samantha, he takes Hannah with him to buy canned food, purchases gas masks, borrows a backhoe from work in order to install a bunker-like shipping container underground. Curtis realizes that his actions very well might be crazy. When she was in her thirties, Curtiss mother had psychotic episodes, abandoning the young Curtis in the parking lot of a grocery store; she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and has been in assisted living ever since. Curtiss predicament is an intractable one. If the visions arent real and he persists in believing them, then hes going insane just like his mother. But if he writes his visions off as delusions and they turn out to be true, then he is following his mothers lead in a different way, in his failure to protect his family. What to do when believing feels like insanity and doubting feels like abandonment?While Curtis retains a calm exterior, his actions become more and more desperate. He puts the house in jeopardy by taking out a home improvement loan from the bank, then loses his job due to erratic behavior. These are risks that Curtis, a successful but still firmly working-class man, cant afford to make: without the insurance that comes from his employer, the family wont be able to pay for a surgery that could improve Hannahs hearing. Curtis knows this and he hates himself for putting his family in danger, but he cant abandon his project because to do so would be to admit defeat and leave his family open to even graverindeed, apocalypticdanger.Take Shelter is that rare movie that weds a brilliant premise, beautiful cinematography, and absolutely top-notch acting. Despite the almost unbearable sense of unease that the movie achieves by its end, Take Shelter is a slowly moving, patiently shot film. Nichols pauses to linger over shots of the seemingly limitless Ohio sky, and he regularly allows us to take in the tensionpsychological, spiritual, and moralwritten on Curtiss face. Shannons performance is one of the most powerful and nuanced Ive seen in years. The star of Boardwalk Empire has an interesting face: wide set, intense eyes, a boxers nose, and an all-but-invisible lower lip. Despite his imposing physical presence (hes 63), Shannon makes Curtis into a gentle, scared man, not menacing but menaced, which makes the moment when he breaks down and rails at his fellow townspeople all the more painful: You think Im crazy? Well, listen up, theres a storm coming like nothing youve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it! A lesser actor would have made Curtis all raving madness; Shannon allows us to see the madness seething beneath the diffidence. It is a sign of the movies complexity that Im not sure which of Curtiss fears I wanted to see confirmedthat he was insane, or that the world is coming to an end.Of course, in the end, the movie does have to give some indication of just how truthful Curtiss visions are, and Take Shelter doesnt disappoint. Its ending isnt gimmicky in the least, but it will cause you to want to start the movie all over again just to see how you got there. Take Shelter tells a universal, timeless story: underneath the seemingly happy, well-adjusted life lies chaos. And yet it also seems to speak to our particular moment, a moment in which bishops say religious freedom has never been more seriously threatened and Republicans proclaim that President Obamaa centrist if ever there were oneis a radical socialist threatening everything Americans hold dear. Just as in the movie, these dangers, either largely or wholly imagined, are balanced by real threats: economic calamity, environmental change, endless war. Though it doesnt mention them directly, Take Shelter cant help but bring these larger cultural and political issues to mind. It is a beautiful, troubling allegory for our dread-filled, apocalyptic times.