Sundance 2011: TAKE SHELTER Review

     January 28, 2011


Before the screening of Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols explained to the audience that he was attempting to tap into an emotion of dread and anxiety.  For the first act of his movie, he’s wildly successful at capturing that feeling.  Vivid, nightmarish dream sequences set the film up as a paranoid thriller.  But then Nichols hits the breaks, stops the dreams, and the tension slowly leaves the picture as it moves at a glacial pace.  While he’s able to eventually pick it back up at the end and come to an interesting conclusion, he is never able to reconnect with his audience.

Take Shelter opens with Curtis (Michael Shannon) having a vision of a storm.  Thick, viscous rain falls from the sky and thunder shakes the landscape.  The vision passes and Curtis goes back to his normal life as a family man with loving wife Sam (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).  But then Curtis tarts to have nightmares.  The nightmares always begin with a storm and end with Curtis waking up in pain and paranoia.  He believes that his nightmares are premonitions of an apocalypse and so he takes to expanding the storm shelter in his backyard.  Desperate to protect his family, Curtis has only two dark options: either he’s wrong and he’s starting to show signs of schizophrenia like his mother (Kathy Baker) or it’s the end of the world.

When we see Curtis’ dreams, the film slaps us awake and Nichols is able to create the sense of dread he wants to achieve.  He not only brings in the surreal aspects of the dream to affect Curtis’ waking life, but during Curtis’ waking hours, Nichols skillfully weaves in real fears about the economy and health care that all middle-class families are facing right now.  Curtis has a good job working construction and his company’s health care plan can pay for his deaf daughter to get a cochlear implant.  But as his fear of a cataclysmic event deepens, his attention to his daily life, along with his sanity, begins to unravel.

I applaud Nichols for trying to tie in legitimate wide-spread fears with Curtis’ fear of the storm.  Adam Stone’s cinematography is gorgeous and full of stark colors and contrast.   However, when the film hits the second act, Nichols’ drops the dreams and slows the pacing to a crawl.  The only intensity to permeate the scenes is Shannon’s eternal grimace.  I’m a big fan of Shannon, but Nichols over-indulges his lead actor and lets him pause for what seems like five minutes before every line of dialogue.  Without giving too much away, Nichols is able to get the movie back on track in the last twenty minutes by finally pushing Curtis and Sam’s relationship to a turning point.  But by then the damage is done and we’ve been dragged along too slowly to feel invested in the characters despite the strong visuals and performances.


Take Shelter is almost a brilliant paranoid thriller that slyly taps into contemporary dread.  The story just takes too long to get to where it needs to be.  I understand Nichols wants to hold tension by keeping scenes quiet and sparse.  He’s got a great eye for visuals and his lead actors do solid work.  What’s most frustrating about Take Shelter is that there’s a dull, slow-paced drama sandwiched between an intense, paranoid thriller.

Rating: C+

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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  • kate

    I saw this trailer at the movies today, it looks SO good!! i think he is crazy though, and the world isn’t ending. that makes it more interesting. it kind of had a “beautiful mind” vibe, so i will definitely be seeing this one!

  • Michael

    I completely disagree with this review of Take Shelter. Yes, the dreams do end and the paranoia shifts halfway through the film, but this is not a mistake on Nichols’ behalf. The director leads the viewer on a ride between perspectives. He begins with the nightmarish realm of Curtis’ mind which is discomforting because of the supernatural manifestations of his anxieties. These anxieties stem further than the economy into family issues which often surround the well-being of Curtis’ hearing-impaired daughter. Should Curtis protect his family from the storm (representative of all anxiety) that he ‘knows’ is impending? Or should he protect them from himself? He begins to understand that it is a question he is unequipped to answer in his state of dreamland paranoia.

    However, Nichols broadens his focus for the second ‘act’ of the film. In doing so, he allows the audience to grasp the nature of Curtis’ ‘affliction’ from the perspective of an outsider. Having empathised with this genuinely amiable protagonist for the first hour of the film, the viewer is then forced to question their own allegiance to this psychologically unstable man. Who is Curtis LaForche? Prophet or mad man? More importantly, does it really matter? Doesn’t the fact that the anxieties of our time have led a man to such a fork in the road of his life convey Jeff Nichols’ message?

    In short, the lack of supernatural visions in the second half of the film does not in any way detract from the pace of the film. In fact, it allows Nichols to focus on the growing emotional tension between family members and between the wider community. This is all brought to a surprisingly satisfying end that mirrors the contrasting perspectives of the two ‘acts’: there is light and darkness, sound and silence, anxiety and comfort.

    Nichols successfully portrays an intangible fear as something visual and mammoth in a way that no director has done before. This film is a masterpiece.

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  • JKing

    Yeah, you nailed it with this review. I liked the film … but it wasn’t as good as it thought it was …

  • lph

    Wow C+? I’m really gonna have to disagree on that one. Deserves much higher in my (and I think most peoples) view

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