Synopsis: Plagued by visions of an impending storm and haunted by nightmares of his loved ones turning against him, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) decides to renovate the storm shelter in his back garden in order to save his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter from what he sees.
A good horror film doesn’t rely on cheap jumps and lots of gore. Horror movies that do are generally shit and are trying to distract you from the fact that they just aren’t very scary. No, a good horror film will scare you by playing on deeply rooted, base human fears. Being isolated. Being alone. The unknown lurking in the shadows. Take Shelter plays on the one thing that I find pant browningly scary.
Mental illness. Loss of rationality. Losing my marbles at an early age. All of these things, above all others, genuinely frighten me to my core.
The opening scenes of Take Shelter encapsulate the foreboding tone of the rest of the movie. Curtis LaForche, husband, father, family man, stands and watches a violent storm brewing in the land opposite his Ohio home. Thunder rumbles. Drops of thick, yellow rain land around him. You immediately sense the tension in Michael Shannon’s performance that carries through the film until the very end.
Take Shelter follows LaForche as he struggles with a series of ever intensifying hallucinations and vivid nightmares. Set against a backdrop of his Mother’s schizophrenia onsetting around the same age as he is now, you watch as he tries to rationalise his ever increasing paraniod behaviour to his friends, co-workers and family, while hiding his true motivations. As he starts to build an elaborate storm shelter he struggles more and more to justify his increasingly irrational behaviour. It’s a fascinating look at how so many people must struggle with what is an incredibly lonely illness.
Jeff Nichols, who also directed Shotgun Stories (2007) with Michael Shannon, uses every inch of Shannon’s quiet intensity to build a stomach knot tightening sense of something awful about to happening. As a fan of Boardwalk Empire I was aware of Shannon’s ability to do quiet crazy. I also remembered how good he was in Revolutionary Road as John Givings, the young man who so quickly turns DiCaprio and Winslet’s lives upside down. He has a natural intimidation. Something in that nasaly voice and the way he squints from under his thick brow puts the B’Jesus up me. He harbours his frustrations beautifully in Take Shelter, leading to a moment of pure venom in the second act that left me breathless.
Nichols also does wonders with a small budget in the first act where we see the majority of LaForche’s nightmares played out. One Inception-esque scene was particularly impressive for the size of the film. There are some genuine old school horror jumps as well as we are shown the deepening paranoia that lay beneath his calm exterior. As someone who suffers from lucid dreaming I can sympathise with the feeling of waking up in a state of shock and panic, disorientated while you find your reality in the darkness. I can only imagine how terrifying that must be if layered with a sense of deepening paranoia.
Jessica Chastain keeps impressing me. I feel like she is in literally everything I watch these days. Since seeing her, I am pretty sure for the first time in Zero Dark Thirty, I now count this as the fourth film I have seen her in since then. Weirdly all the films I have seen her in were made before Zero Dark Thirty as well. She does well as the emotionally drained wife trying to keep her family together with a shoe string while her husband wanders of into the mental unknown.
The only criticism is it felt a little long and there was a natural point where it could have left a brilliantly ambiguous ending, but Nichols chose to play it out a little longer. All in all though this was as heart wrenching and stomach turning a film as I have seen for a long while. Horror writers should take note. This is how you create tension.
Finally, this would have been in Oscar contention for 2012. Looking back at the Best Leading Actor category it is criminal that Shannon was overlooked. I can’t believe Brad Pitt got nominated for Moneyball over this. Nothing against Brad Pitt in Moneyball, but it feels like it should have been Shannon’s spot on that short list.
Conclusion: A highly engaging and affecting performance from Shannon. Should have been Oscar nominated. Through brilliant use of sound, lighting and limited effects Nichols creates a sense of constant foreboding and paranoia that ably matches Shannon’s portrayal. Terrifying look at something none of us have any real control over.
Director/Writer: Jeff Nichols – Only previous work was Shotgun Stories with Shannon. Has written and directed Mud with Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and, yup, Michael Shannon, which gets theatrical release in May 2013.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon
- Michael Shannon purposely didn’t read up on mental illnesses before taking on the role as Curtis, as this is something the character himself knew little about.
Currently streaming on SkyMovies