More metaphorical tact would turn Take Shelter from a brisk gale to a force five.
If the measure of a man were determined by his domestic feats, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) would be rubber stamped ‘ordinary’. In small town Ohio he tallies shifts at a local drilling firm, bringing home enough bread to keep his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) clothed and fed. It’s a modest existence, but they get by. They’re content. Happy.
But a storm is gathering in the distance. Bird swarms and blackened heavens become regular sightings in Curtis’ daily routine. Worryingly, he seems to be the sole observer of these ominous phenomena. He’s about to descend into a personal nightmare that will splinter his white-picket ideal with the sudden impact of a lightning bolt.
On the surface, Take Shelter finds Shannon occupying a familiar headspace. But as Shotgun Stories (Shannon and writer/director Jeff Nichols’ 2007 collaboration) proved, first impressions can deceive. Because although Curtis is a man with biblical inner demons to battle, the schizophrenia that consumes him comes from an ambiguous seed.
Like Shotgun Stories, we learn that Curtis’ father has not long passed away, and the additional absence of his elder brother has thrust him into the patriarchal spotlight. For the first time he’s aware of his own mortality and the weight of his responsibilities. Then, much later, we meet his mother, a shell-like victim of bipolarity. Is Curtis privy to apocalyptic premonitions? Is his affliction hereditary? Or are the strains of manhood beginning to rot his mental core?
The fact that Take Shelter leaves us with more questions than answers is Nichols’ shrewdest move. The conviction of Shannon’s performance, allied with the notion that Curtis is fundamentally a good man, ensures we keep the faith that brighter skies and Spring tides will return. Samantha, though loyal, isn’t quite so sure.
Through her worried and wearied eyes we see the LaForche world veer perilously towards the point of no return. Like her, we fear that Curtis’ impulsive actions may be fatal. The tornado bunker he carves into the earth of his suburban backyard to protect his brood from the End of Days might as well be an economy-sized casket.
But when motor oil is spat earthwards from fat grey clouds and chirping swells crash around Curtis’ head once more, it’s impossible to ignore the sensation that disaster, be it human or natural, is an inescapable force we must all eventually face. Life is fragile. Loss is inescapable.
For all its allegorical intrigue, however, Nichols’ overzealous splicing of genre and mood ultimately dulls his film’s impact. The narrative doesn’t need absolute clarity, it’s better for the lack of it, but a touch more metaphorical tact, or at least less repetition, would turn Take Shelter from a brisk gale to a force five.
Won the Critics Week Grand Prize in Cannes.
Shannon and Chastain are a force to be reckoned with.
The supernatural horror/suburban drama mash-up doesn’t always sit well, but there’s no need to take shelter from the Shannon/Nichols partnership.