Take Shelter marks the second collaboration between Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) and his Shotgun Stories writer/director Jeff Nichols, and it only serves to verify that the promise this pairing demonstrated with their first outing was no fluke. Also like Shotgun Stories, I would be doing it a disservice to attempt to sell you on it in this intro with a single, sensational genre tag. Is it a disaster film? Eh. Psychological character study and suburban family drama? Mostly. Existential meditation? If it suits you. Checks across the board, yet it’s the way in which those distinct elements mesh that leaves Take Shelter without a clear home and all the better for it. In a way this Blu-ray’s arrival commemorates the anniversary of Take Shelter’s critically-lauded Sundance premiere and, given that most of you had no choice but to miss its limited theatrical run in L.A. and New York, this phenomenal disc makes for a handsome introduction. Take Shelter also stars Jessica Chastain (2011 movie) and Shannon’s Boardwalk co-star Shea Whigham. Hit the jump for my review.
Take Shelter follows Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a construction worker in a nowhere farming town in Ohio. He loves his wife Samantha (Chastain) and their daughter Hannah, and ends his shift by sharing a beer with his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Whigham). Curtis and Samantha are adapting to Hannah’s recent deafness and trying to secure insurance money to cover a cochlear implant, but they’re managing. All is well and quaint, aside from Curtis’ nightmares and waking hallucinations of an oncoming storm that transforms its few survivors into violent, zombie-like figures. His mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her 30’s, so when these dreams persist and continue to leave him in pools of sweat, he begins visiting a psychologist for evaluations. Not wanting to leave his family’s lives to chance, he also begins prepping an old tornado shelter behind his home. This obsession takes over his conversations and activities, affecting his relationships at the job, at the house and in the community. As the previsions grow more frequent and more terrifying, Curtis braces himself for a revelation of his mind’s deterioration or Revelations itself. If the synopsis seems vague, it was purposeful. Much of the momentum comes from the viewer sharing in Curtis’ discoveries. If you want something to compare it to, Take Shelter is oddly a bit like Field of Dreams with slightly loftier stakes.
The acting in Take Shelter is the highlight. Shannon in particular was mesmerizing; perhaps his most varied performance yet. His character gets put through the ringer, alternating between the happy dad, protective father, prophet and fearful patient roles on a dime, and Shannon hits the full range of emotional notes along the way. The most telling thing about Curtis is that his fear of becoming ill stems only from the dread of having to abandon his family, and his commitment to the shelter’s construction obviously comes from a similarly caring place. It isn’t hard to get on his side even as he is overly cryptic with his wife and makes irresponsible work decisions. Flawed protagonists are always the most fascinating to watch and Shannon nails it. He really should have been nominated for an Oscar. I’m aware those aren’t an objective indicator of who deserves to be there, but I do know that nominated films and performances get seen. Chastain and Whigham’s work is top notch as well, but Take Shelter is largely Shannon’s show. However, when Curtis’ raving begins to fray his ties to those closest to him, their reactions and concern are appropriate, believable and heart-wrenching.
Two of the film’s other successes may prove divisive for viewers, so I’ll offer a disclaimer: this is a minimalist, contemplative approach to the end-of-days scenario and a slow burn. Curtis’ dreams of the pending disaster are not Roland Emmerich-scaled set pieces involving whole-sale obliteration of a medley of U.S. landmarks, but it’s the containment of his visions to the only town he knows that raises suspicions of his mental health, keeps the story grounded in his personal journey and exemplifies his exclusive concern for his family’s safety. Whether it was artistic restraint, a result of the shoestring production budget (supposedly in the neighborhood of $1 million) or a bit of both, the sequences are refreshing and relatable. As for the pacing, it is Curtis’ gradual descent into enlightenment/madness that lends a sense of impending doom to the third act.
Speaking of the effects work, at no point did it call attention to the film’s indie origins. Handled by the Strause brothers (Skyline), the CGI horizons were simultaneously breathtaking and horrifying, as an apocalyptic storm probably would be. Of course, this must work in step with the cinematography or it wouldn’t amount to much. Fortunately, the takes are lengthy and shots of the brewing catastrophe are framed in an epic way. The camera lingers as if in the same awe the characters are experiencing.
Nichols’ films have a knack for blending blue-collar grit with tangible humanity, all while echoing masterful literary sensibilities. Whereas Shotgun Stories was pure Shakespearian tragedy, Take Shelter deftly recalls the works of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. It’s a treat when a filmmaker challenges himself to take on deep material and manages to avoid sacrificing the story and characters in favor of its themes. Take Shelter deals with heady topics like natural order/the unavoidable biblical parallels, man’s will to survive and mental illness, but there is no preaching or pretention on display here as Curtis’ family’s struggle to cope with their own troubles takes center stage.
There’s not much negative I can say about Take Shelter, as every department I’ve considered brought their A-game and I clearly enjoyed it, so I’m left with little to take points away for. These types of films are not for everyone though and understandably so. You probably know who you are, but the ones on the fence could do far worse than to use Take Shelter as a litmus test. Check out the trailer, its rather honest about the tone.
Sony Pictures Classics presents Take Shelter in 2.35:1 1080p video with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, both of which are fantastic. Sony may be the most consistent studio in terms of Blu-ray quality right now, devoting as much attention to their smaller releases as the blockbusters (the Drive Blu was near perfection). The picture quality absolutely does the imagery of nature’s warnings justice, as the viewer can make out every drop of rain, blowing blade of grass and bird in ominous flock formations. The colors are vivid and realistic while the darks are foreboding and dense. There was a brief moment or two where the grain seemed to flare up in excess, but that’s the only flaw I made note of. The audio, meanwhile, demands to be heard on surround sound. You feel the strength of the downpours, cracks of thunder and howling tornados, which in turn makes the silence of the shelter equally deafening.
The special features, also presented in high definition video and audio, are certainly generous for a release that won’t garner much mass attention. For the insider perspective, there’s a commentary with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, a screening Q&A with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, and a making-of titled “Behind the Scenes of Take Shelter”. The latter offers a few glimpses into the technical side of the production, but it’s primarily cast and crew interviews dealing with their approach to and experience on the project. There is some repetition between these, but what’s there is still far more insightful than the typical EPK fluff piece and well worth checking out at least once. Finally, the Blu-ray comes with two deleted scenes enticingly called “2nd Counselor Session” and “Picnic Table”. Both are first-rate scenes that were probably cut for covering familiar territory.