← Back to Reviews

Take Shelter


Year of release

Directed by
Jeff Nichols

Written by
Jeff Nichols

Michael Shannon
Jessica Chastain
Shea Whigham

Take Shelter



Plot Family man Curtis is plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions. Are they a prophetic warning? Or are they a sign that he is suffering from the same mental illness that struck down his mother? Fearing they are a warning he puts his job, his family and his financial wellbeing on the line and begins to build a shelter.

A truly ominous and foreboding tone of dread permeates this whole film pretty much right from the opening seconds. It is an extremely tense movie-watching experience, created by a well executed pace which continues to up the ante and slowly tighten its grip on us. All leading up to an almost excruciatingly uncomfortable scene inside the shelter were I really was fearing that the character was about to snap and cause harm to himself or his family.

The film looks stunning. It's locations are wonderfully photographed; full of lush and vivid colours, and are punctuated by a series of striking, apocalyptic images. His dreams really do deliver some breathtaking visuals. And the fact that they were delivered on an apparent budget of just $1million is quite staggering. The visual style also hints at and evokes a bit of a Terrence Malick feel, particularly the focus given to trees gently rustling in the wind. I was only aware of the storm elements of his dreams beforehand, and was quite taken by the increasingly strange, almost surreal, manner they took on. It's easy to buy just how disturbing and distressing Curtis finds the increasingly nightmarish images, as he is not alone. What also works incredibly well is not just the dreams themselves, but the way Shannon reacts to them. He doesn't just do the standard bolt up in bed move, we see him gasping for air and struggling to breathe. He seems to be in real discomfort and pain.

For this kind of film to truly work, it need a powerful central showing, and thankfully in Michael Shannon it has someone who is more than capable of delivering. His performance has to be one of the best I've seen in recent times, and makes it all the more surprising that he was completely shut out at all the major award ceremonies. While it's an intense, brooding performance he actually delivers it in a fairly quiet manner; the character straining to contain the fear and anguish that is building up within. The fact that any outburst is so rare means that when he really does explode at a community get-together it really is quite a terrifying moment. As an actor he is able to evoke so much by doing so little, relying just on his eyes or body language to tell us exactly what the character is feeling.

With such a strong performance from the central character it would be easy to overlook everyone else involved, but in the case of Jessica Chastain that would be a criminal mistake. As Curtis' wife she radiates warmth, grace and a real toughness as she runs a gauntlet of emotions while trying to deal with her husband's mental deterioration. The majority of the time she is a supportive and loving partner, but is plagued by worry and anger.

Take Shelter also puts the viewer (well this viewer anyway) in the odd position of actually hoping for an apocalyptic event. Curtis is such a decent guy; such a sympathetic character, that I want his fears to be vindicated. He is just an everyman who desperately wants to protect his family, while also keenly aware they he may also be the biggest threat that they face. They are just a normal family going about their ordinary lives; they don't deserve this.

Jeff Nichols direction is of very high quality; expertly crafting the story, the visuals and the whole mood into something quite special. What's very impressive is how he is in no rush to give us an answer, no rush to push our expectations down one direction. Is the character a prophet, or is he just descending down the same route of mental illness that befell his mother? He keeps both theories in play right up until the closing moments. And even then the ending is steeped in ambiguity, left open to interpretation. After this I will certainly be looking to track down Nichols' debut film, Shotgun Stories, and will be keeping a close eye on his future work.

The film is not perfect however. The final act feels like it has been stretched out a little bit. And also the way that the community reacted to Curtis' situation felt unusual. While I am really only going on its portrayal in other films, it seems odd for such a close knit community that they wouldn't have more sympathy for the character, that they wouldn't rally around him.

It's a film that very much feels powered by the current fears of the American public, and indeed the world at large. In this post 9/11, post recession climate there is a lot of fear and uncertainty residing. As well as being about survival; about a family sticking together to try and get each other through a tough time, it is also a sincere and sensitively handled contemplation on mental illness. Looking at his mental deterioration and the effect that it has on him and those around him.

Conclusion A powerful and riveting film, one of the most interesting and impressive of 2011. Strong direction and a terrific performance from Shannon make it a real must-see. With so few people seeing it on its initial release I just hope its audience grows and grows over the years. It certainly deserves it.