Take Shelter is a film about omens. The word ‘omen’ is an antique term that lacks any kind of prognostic specificity. It is a thing, a sign, a vision or a coincidence that portends either fortune or disaster. Perhaps it comes from god, is generated unconsciously by nature or magic, or is somehow an outward manifestation of a personal hunch. The more unusual or blatant the omen, the bigger magnitude of the forthcoming doom. The trouble with omens, as writer and director Jeff Nichols points out, is that they involve essential and unnameable fears and joys: passions that cannot be worded let alone clearly communicated to another. Certainly, one has no way of knowing the validity or the meaning of an omen that is described to us by another.
Perhaps the perfect epithet of the omen is the storm. It is literally, a dark cloud looming in the near future, observable and slowly advancing. If there can be something more bloodcurdling than an apocalyptic storm, it is surely being able to see its certain, fated approach.
Michael Shannon gives a magnum performance as the strapping everyman Curtis LaForche, a loving husband to beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to darling six-year-old Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis works long hours as a crew chief at a sandmining company and devotes much of his spare time to ASL workshops to connect and communicate better with Hannah, who is deaf. His happy home is the envy of his jaded crewmembers. However, something is welling up inside Curtis that is setting his family life on edge. He has an inexplicable feeling that his family are unsafe, that something wicked this way comes. He begins to have physically affecting nightmares, and waking apocalyptic visions in which a vast, inescapable storm engulfs his family. Keeping these torments to himself, he focuses instead on the overhaul of the decrepit storm shelter in his yard, a project none of his neighbours find rational. The prophetic episodes are impossible for Curtis to ignore, seeming like biblical warnings of an approaching disaster, insistent, alarming and so distinct as to be mistaken for reality. On the other hand, Curtis has a family history of early-onset paranoid schizophrenia, the initial symptoms of which he has been secretly dreading his whole life.
The visuals used in Curtis’ dream and hallucination sequences are an elegant expression of the notion that something isn’t quite right with the world. Birds circle in improbably great numbers; clouds form obscenely wrong shapes; raindrops fall black and oily. The grandiose, baroque appearance of the storm itself is only outsized by Shannon’s incredible performance as a man afraid, wearied and burdened by the weight of having to decide between believing he is delusional or believing he is right, and knowing that either way his family may be doomed.
Michael Shannon takes on the lion’s share of the screen time with an unreservedly committed performance. Shannon is handsome in an old-fashioned kind of way, like a working class version Darryn Stephens or Mike Brady. He has the strong jaw and forehead-grazing curl of a capable hero, perhaps giving him further to fall as he plumbs the depths of his own insecurities.
Nichols’ debut script is exceptionally well written, sparing with dialogue whilst maintaining an all-American elegance. It deals with Curtis’ downfall by giving equal credence to both the probability and seriousness of mental illness and the magical poesis of the visions themselves. They come across as something of a natural phenomenon like a mirage or an echo that only one person can sense. No time is wasted labouring over the family’s blissful life toward the beginning of the film, instead the quality and importance of Curtis’ family life is expressed by his and their reactions to his encroaching despair. Jessica Chastain in particular treads a fine line between unconditional love and personal anguish, which better elucidates the past rapport between the couple than any prolonged exposition could.
The original soundtrack, by David Wingo, is piercing and induces audience attention and sentiment with a force not unlike Moses parting the waters. Trickling glockenspiel sounds mirror the toxic raindrops Curtis is plagued by, and a low, restless string section transforms every strewn play set, rolling storm cloud and wind-ruffled wheat field into a desolate and threatening omen. This musical accompaniment is almost like a second lead beside Shannon, played as a duet between the strung out Curtis and his straying ‘other self’ as it becomes increasingly receptive to visions and noises and fear. It is an incredible embodiment of the sensation one might get when constantly double-checking the reality or normalcy of one’s own experience and behaviour.
This film is a superb example of modern American storytelling. It is steeped in some of the most deeply embedded values that exist in American culture. Most urgently, the need to protect the family within a fortified property, financial and physical security, involvement in community activities and centrally, this archetype of the hard-working, breadwinning, emotionally introverted husband and father.
It also resonates with the long-standing apocalyptic tradition that America is the seat of the world: isn’t it true that cinematic contact with aliens, zombies, vampires, superheroes and angels is always made in a cornfield outside a whitewashed, petunia-lined bungalow? Indeed, Curtis believes that if the end of the world is coming, it will surely start in his backyard, just as he, the All-American Father, is the only one who can shield Samantha and Hannah from it. Take Shelter feels like it must be based on a McCarthy novel, such is the grand literary sensibility of the script.
Similarly, Take Shelter evokes some of the most catastrophic and spectacular disasters that have plagued Middle American regions, calling upon an essential American fear of the dustbowl, the tornado, the lightning storm and especially in light of New Orleans, the American deluge. I suspect art director Jennifer Klide took not a few clues from the sepia-tone exposition of twister-classic The Wizard of Oz, and the magnificent and iconic 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World. One feels as though the pacing of the script mirrors these great acts of god, being a kind of exponential whirlwind, an avalanche that gathers speed and crashes into the end of the film with the utmost emotional force.
This powerful and breathtaking film has been duly decorated at Cannes and Sundance and I would not be greatly surprised to see it nominated during the US awards season. It’s a unique narrative that manages to harness some of the force of the diabolical natural dynamism it hints at, directing it toward us almost personally. It also captures some fragment of increasing global anxieties about the unpredictability and poisonous contamination of nature’s phenomena, and about the economic turmoil of the financial crisis. Nowhere are these worries more concentrated than in the U.S. (indeed most things are more concentrated in the U.S.), where many families are experiencing the loss of their domestic securities and equilibrium. If Take Shelter forces us to consider the omen more carefully, perhaps these worries will manifest in still more distinct precautions buffering the family unit against all possible ills; the storm shelter, the safety whistle, airbags, insurance. Take Shelter asks – is the absence of paranoia essentially characterised by not taking precautions; and, if we must acknowledge imminent doom as a basic part of human existence, what omens, whether scientific, behavioural, illusory, divine, preternatural or magical, can we trust in?