By far one of the best dramas from last year, Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis Laforche, a working-class everyman with disturbing visions of the apocalypse. In his sophomore feature, writer-director Jeff Nichols creates a story somewhere between a taut psychological thriller and an uneasy, gothic look at mental illness in rural America. It’s this balancing act that makes Take Shelter so unique.

There are whisper quiet scenes such as Curtis driving by a grocery store, staring out over the hills, or sitting down to dinner that take their domesticity seriously. So when Curtis has one of his visions, they sneak up on us, and when they reach a fever pitch, their intensity is worthy of medieval doom. Curtis sees some real end-of-days stuff; oil rain, birds falling from the sky, tornados, and even zombie-like attackers. However, in modern-day context, seen through the lens of a blue collar Ohio neighborhood, Curtis’ visions are less biblical and more psychological.

The real conflict arises when Curtis’ nightmare begin to get in the way of his daily life. Even though Curtis realizes that his visions may be the result of paranoid schizophrenia – his mother suffers from the disease – that doesn’t stop him from obsessively building a storm shelter to protect his family from the approaching apocalypse, echoing the juxtaposition between delusion and honest-to-god prophecy. What’s more, his obsession is putting a strain on his family and marriage. Despite having a daughter that is deaf and in need of a hearing aid, Curtis, already strapped for cash, takes out a loan to build his shelter. After awhile, Curtis begins to question what he should really be protecting his family from – the apocalypse or himself.

There’s no question about it, Take Shelter is a Michael Shannon vehicle. The scowling, square-jawed actor plays an emotive, tortured creature. Shannon, as in most of his movies, has an impressive presence. Typically cast as a weirdo, or as a mentally insecure person, he makes good use of Curtis’ character, a man fully aware of his illness and the strain it puts on his loved ones, but unable to release himself from the grasp of paranoia. Shannon, an extremely expressive actor, shows every little internal conflict in the folds of his face. In Take Shelter, Shannon positions himself as one of the best actors making movies right now.

Jessica Chastain, who plays Curtis’ wife, Samantha, also puts on a commendable performance. Chastain has that salt of the earth quality that’s needed to convincingly play a rural wife split between her devotion to her husband and the needs of their daughter. Samantha could have easily been one or the other, completely skeptical of her husband’s visions or an unquestioning believer, but the character is much more complex than that, and Chastain gives the role an effortless appearance that is both clairvoyant and subtle.

Obviously, Take Shelter begs the question: Are Curtis’ vision real or just mad delusions? If Curtis does turn out to be insane, then the movie is just about mental illness in small-town Americana, which alone is an affecting theme. But certainly, there is a part of us that want the visions to come true, not only to see the world come crumbling down, but also to know that Curtis, who we’ve grown so attached to, isn’t crazy. In other words, we want Curtis to overcome his obstacles; we want a happy ending, nevermind that this desire has us rooting for the apocalypse.

However, finding out whether or not Curtis is correct isn’t the aim of the movie. In an interview, Michael Shannon points out that Curtis is alone with his visions, that this is the source of strife between him and his loved ones, and that Curtis’ main impetus is to be understood and to share his experiences. This seems to be one of the biggest concerns in Take Shelter: to what extent do we have faith in those we love, and how much are we willing to ask of them? When it comes right down to it, Take Shelter is simply a story of love and devotion. And that’s more powerful than any storm.

Blu-ray Special Features:

The blu-ray release of Take Shelter includes commentary from Michael Shannon and Director, Jeff Nichols, a behind the scenes look at the movie, an interview with Michael Shannon and supporting actor, Shea Whigham, deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

Read more about:

Leave a comment