Take Shelter, the sophomore effort from writer/director Jeff Nichols, represents a major step forward from Nichols’s first film, Shotgun Stories. Shotgun Stories, a very good movie in its own right, showcases Nichols’s particular skill for building and sustaining tension and capturing the nuances of interpersonal relationships. But where Shotgun Stories at times feels aloof and seems to linger too long on some scenes, Take Shelter is tightly edited and intimately involves the viewer in the lives of its characters.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a young husband and father who leads a modest small-town life with his wife and daughter. He has a home and a job that provides for his family’s needs. But Curtis has begun suffering from increasingly vivid and disturbing nightmares that appear to predict a massive natural disaster looming on the horizon. Worse still, they may be indicative of the onset of mental illness, which runs in Curtis’s family. So Curtis begins taking drastic measures in an attempt to ensure the future security of his wife and daughter.
As noted above, Nichols is a skilled writer and director. He has crafted a story that is personal and heartbreaking, even as tension steadily mounts to a powerful crescendo. The nightmare sequences, in particular, are harrowing and effectively express the anxiety that Curtis experiences in his day-to-day existence. Shannon has made a career out of playing larger-than-life psychotics, and it’s refreshing to see how nicely he acquits himself to playing a suffering everyman who is quietly struggling to come to terms with how little control he has over his life.
But the real revelation here is Jessica Chastain, who is terrific as Curtis’s ultra-capable spouse, Samantha. Rather than playing Samantha as nagging and exasperated wife, Chastain infuses her with a sense of purpose as she tries to hold the small family together in the midst of her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior. I suspect that we will see great things from her in the future. (She apparently has a prominent role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming The Tree of Life.)
I do want to note that audiences appear to view the final scene in this movie as a twist in the spirit of M. Night Shyamalan. Such a literal interpretation ignores the careful work that Nichols has put into the film to that point. When you consider what has come before it, and where the characters have ultimately arrived, the scene becomes a masterstroke in a powerful, finely-crafted piece of filmmaking.
Tight editing and pace make for a careful and thoughtful film that is a very strong piece of cinema.