Pushed by nightmarish visions of doom, Curtis builds a tornado shelter in his backyard. His wife though wonders what has gotten into his mind, and is worried sick for his sanity and their future together. Is he a schizophrenic who ruins his family life, or do his visions mean something more?
Curtis seems like a regular guy living in Ohio with his wife and his deaf daughter. A good life, it seems. But he has some unseen problems. He has apocalyptic nightmares that upset him, and normal everyday visions like rainstorms, birds and news features have a special significance for him. He sees omens of impending doom were others see just storm clouds. There are many similarities to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). The film plays with the idea of him being right, almost like a science fiction story.
There is a great tension maintained in this film that slowly builds up. All seems quiet in the everyday life of Curtis, but he is worried. He stares at the sky while an ominous piano plays simple notes. He is anxious about some deep rumbling feeling of approaching danger, but he doesn’t really communicate this well to his wife, and she doesn’t understand why he is acting so strange. Often, I do not really like this plot element. I mean, how hard is it for the guy to tell his wife: “I had a nightmare”? Instead, he doesn’t really seem to understand what he is feeling, so he just says “I am fine.”
It is Michael Shannons understated acting that makes this work. He is such a good actor to play a brooding husband. Both he and Jessica Chastain play very low-key but utterly believable roles. Also, as Curtis is getting weirder and weirder, it’s clear that his taciturnity is part of his character development. So I underestimated this film. As a viewer, you now get the impression that he might be a schizophrenic, and he starts to worry about it himself as well. Finally, his big breaking point arrives: he starts to build an underground bunker, like Howard’s in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). It is a project that pulls the whole family down with him, in his madness.
This is an unsettling film. It messes around with your sense of personal sanity, and adds a whole lot of family problems as Curtis slips deeper into his hallucinations and crazy plans. It’s about that awful theme of mental illness ruining hopes and dreams, ruining futures. Something suddenly strikes me: the panic and the apocalyptic images in his dreams are like a prophecy. A metaphor for the impending doom of his unspoken mental problems. But the doom is played out as one small decision at a time. The film is insidious about it. It entraps us deeper and deeper.
On the surface, Take Shelter seems a bit slow. But underneath the rather mundane scenes lies this tension. Together with Curtis we feel the same impending doom, but we are more concerned about the problems with his family perhaps and not about the visions (although these are quite creepy). The movie makes me nervous. Technically, it is all great quality. The acting by Shannon and Chastain is really Oscar-worthy and the side characters all feel very natural. Great shots too of the surroundings, the broad skies and flat country.
I would certainly recommend this movie, but not to those with a short attention span. Also, most of the tension rests on whether you can identify with Jessica Chastain and how difficult Curtis makes it for her to run this family. She gives a great performance in any case. This movie rests on making you uncomfortable, so you have to be up for that. The final 15 minutes are… beautiful.