TAKE SHELTER (2011) (***1/2)
What if you couldn’t trust your own thoughts? Curtis begins to believe this might be the case. He is starting to have dreams so vivid that he doesn’t know what is real and what was just in his head. Mental illness runs in his family. He seeks help, but is it enough to make him aware of the line between reality and his delusions?
The actor who plays Curtis is the go to actor for mentally off roles Michael Shannon. Unlike his Oscar nominated role in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD or the horror flick BUG, he is fighting against and even trying to hide his possible problems. The reason is because he has a lot to lose. He is married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain, THE TREE OF LIFE) and their daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) needs a surgery to repair her damaged hearing. If his work finds out he is mentally off, will they still let him work his construction job? If he loses his job he loses his health insurance.
Curtis’ delusions begin with a tornado, which grows in intensity. Soon faceless people are attacking his family. Then people he knows are turning on him. He’s not sure what to trust so he just wants to get prepared. He puts the family dog in a pen in the backyard. At work, he asks to have his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham, TV’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE) switched off his team. But in the process of trying to save his family, he puts them in the most jeopardy by deciding to spend thousands of dollars on building out the old storm shelter.
This haunting drama reunites Shannon with director Jeff Nichols, who together made the underrated indie SHOTGUN STORIES. Like that film, TAKE SHELTER has a Southern gothic feel. The cinematography is moody, which is backed up by the eerie drone of the soundtrack and methodical pacing. Nichols knows how to create great human drama. He takes material that could be melodramatic and creates some real from it. He finds the humanity.
Part of that humanity comes from Shannon’s performance. He has great concern about following in the footsteps of his mother Sarah (Kathy Baker, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), who one day just left Curtis in a parking lot and disappeared. He is a good man who makes the mistake of hiding his illness out of concern and pride. Ironically, Samantha is a truly understanding woman. Chastain makes her a strong partner who has a hidden strength that even her husband can’t see. It comes out when it is needed the most. Only when Curtis’ behavior goes to the extreme does she get angry, but down deep all she wants is answers.
Tension builds as Curtis makes increasingly more irrational decisions. One bad move builds on the next until the family is in the storm shelter wearing gas masks and Curtis refuses to leave. But that’s not the end. Nichols finds a last moment that will be debated. The audience might wonder what is real and what is not. Is there a better way to end a film about schizophrenia?