Take Shelter: Finding shelter from the storm
Michael Shannon stars as the terrorized husband and father in Take Shelter, one of the more overlooked and underrated films of 2011, now available on DVD and on-demand. He is terrorized by nightmares, sounds and premonitions of impending doom. They come upon him like seizures, paralyzing and frightening, and they send him into a tailspin of debt and psychosis. To protect his family, he takes out an ill-advised loan, steals equipment from his construction job and builds a storm shelter in his back yard. He appears to be on the brink of madness, except for the nagging sense the doom, in one form or another, may indeed be descending.
As a study of the onset of mental illness, Take Shelter is both sad and scary. Here is a man with a mother long ago committed to an institution but who has risen above his upbringing to raise a family, make a mark in his community, become a supervisor at his work, and lead a secure, stable life. He dotes on his young daughter, who is deaf, and along with his comforting wife, a terrific performance from Jessica Chastain, they are looking forward to a cochlear implant that may restore her hearing, thanks to a comprehensive health insurance package. But then the nightmares begin.
Depicted with bold, ultra-realistic imagery by director Jeff Nichols, making only his second film, these episodes are both beautiful and apocalyptic. They have the wonder of a religious vision and the gravity of something more tangible. Without spelling it out, Nichols and his excellent cast conjure up a sense that this family’s very existence, beset by the financial difficulties, fears, muted hopes and the constant struggles of the middle class, is afflicted with schizophrenia. There is the suggestion the tenuous hold on the American dream is itself a kind of insanity.
Everyone in the cast is perhaps too pretty and too fit to represent the teeming working class of this movie’s vision of the Ohio heartland. But within the film’s art direction, its flat horizons of tract homes and featureless backyards, its free clinics and community suppers, the taciturn conversations and halting displays of affection, Take Shelter takes the pulse of a vast suburban America overwhelmed with the thousand daily stresses of life.
Shannon, who has played crazy and dangerous many times before, is perfectly cast in Take Shelter. Rather than running completely off the rails, his rants and rages here, tinged with Old Testament prophecy, are balanced by an internal desperation to understand what’s happening. Ashamed and ridden with anxiety, he tries to hide his behavior from his wife and best friend, even seeking medical and psychiatric help. There is the inevitable public meltdown scene, but the filmmakers use the moment to take the film in an unexpected direction. Without giving it all away, I’ll say that Take Shelter is rare these days in its depiction of a young marriage built on love and devotion rather than the usual dramatics of abandonment. Yes, Chastain takes their daughter and leaves, but then she comes back, revealing the character’s vast reservoir of compassion. This is a good thing, because when the last scene of this movie arrives, one would hate to have to face it alone.