Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter has been building buzz for some time now, ever since a compelling trailer arrived online a few months back…and particularly after the film enjoyed a rave-review-filled run up at the TIFF. This weekend, Fantastic Fest’s programmers managed to snag the film for a very special, one-time-only screening for the film geeks currently mobbing the Alamo Drafthouse, and it’d be fair to say that the screening was just as difficult to get into as last night’s You’re Next screening. Anticipation was running high, the TIFF hype had done its job, and the screening was appropriately exclusive—but did the film live up to the hype? You’re gonna have to read on to find out, folks.
Before I knew who was starring in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, I learned the film’s premise: Curtis– a blue-collar family man in his mid-thirties– begins to have troubling dreams, dreams which indicate that the apocalypse (or, at the very least, one very destructive storm) is about to strike. Terrified for his life—not to mention the lives of his wife and young, deaf daughter—the man begins to build an elaborate storm shelter in the field behind his house. As the dreams become progressively more frightening, the man begins to suspect that these “visions” might actually be signs of paranoid schizophrenia, a disease his mother was afflicted with. Everyone this man knows thinks he’s going crazy (including his family)…but is he? Does crazy run in his blood, or can he see the future?
It’s a solid setup for a paranoid, tightly-wound little film, but when I heard that Michael Shannon would be headlining the film, I had a moment of pause: Michael Shannon? The weird guy from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? The bonkers FBI agent from Boardwalk Empire? The guy who looks crazy even when he’s standing still and being silent? That’s the guy you hired to play the “potentially” crazy guy? Of course Michael Shannon’s a wonderful actor, but this seemed like a case of a bit of casting that was a bit “on the nose”.
As it turns out, I am an idiot. Jeff Nichols knew precisely what he was doing, and Michael Shannon’s performance serves as a showcase for sides of this actor that I’d never seen before. Yes, we’ve seen Michael Shannon do “crazy”, but when’s the last time we saw him being affectionate? Loving? Shooting the shit with the guys at the bar after a long day at work? Take Shelter gives Michael Shannon the opportunity to play “straight” before he hits “crazy”, and he’s outstanding at either end of the sanity spectrum. So, before I tell you anything else, allow me to tell you this: if there’s any justice in the world, Michael Shannon will be nominated for an Oscar this year for his work in Take Shelter. Bet on it.
One could look at Take Shelter from a number of angles, and it’s hard to tell after one viewing just how many themes and ideas Nichols has woven into his film. A single pass reveals meditations on fear (fear of a parent passing along a crippling mental disease, fear of the unknown, fear of betrayal and scorn), paranoia (Are these visions the real deal, or are they just dreams? Might Curtis’ friends and family try to stop him from doing what he feels compelled to do?), commitment (witness Curtis’ determination to learn sign language for his daughter, his work ethic, his feverish drive to get that shelter built) faith, destiny—all kinds of stuff. This film is rich, layered, and will obviously be rewarding for those that come back for repeat viewings.
Take Shelter—which takes place in Ohio—looks like it cost a relatively small amount of money to produce. With the exception of a few key special effects sequences (mainly stuff that we’re seeing in Curtis’ dreams/visions), Nichols gives us a very low-key film: It’s a small Ohio town, and just as boring to look at as it sounds. That said, you won’t be put off by the lack of visual razzle-dazzle here: one comes to Take Shelter not for the sizzle but for the steak, which can be found in the performances and in Nichols’ writing. I hesitate to say that Take Shelter’s script is flawless—there are a few sequences that feel like they could’ve been dropped along the way, stuff that doesn’t seem entirely consequential to the story at first glance (a scene between Curtis and his friend after a night of drinking, for instance, or a scene where Curtis’ brother comes to harangue him about his bizarre home-improvement project)—but I will say that 90% of it works very well, and impresses enough that I’ll be as “on the lookout” for Nichols’ future projects as I am for other Fantastic Fest veterans like Nacho Vigalondo, Adam Wingard, and Jee-woon Kim.
Take Shelter’s final image is absolutely haunting, a few sustained frames that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. This is the kind of film that I expect to spend a lot of time considering over the weeks ahead, and I cannot wait to own a copy of the film for myself, one I can pour through with an even keener eye. All of the hype and buzz about Nichols’ film is absolutely spot-on, and if the film catches on, it might just give Michael Shannon the big-time exposure that he’s deserved for so long (if it doesn’t, Zack Snyder’s forthcoming The Man of Steel will).
Walk into Take Shelter knowing that it will be a subdued affair (though you should pay attention—as if you could miss it—for a scene where Shannon really loses his cool: you’ll get goosebumps) and you will be rewarded with one of Shannon’s finest performances, the work of a talented newcomer of a director/writer, and one of the more satisfying endings I’ve seen recently. Walk in expecting a big-budget, effects-driven, pre-apocalypse tale and you’ll be disappointed: this film’s much smarter than that. This is an excellent, powerful little film.
My grade? A-