Take Shelter is something of a modern American horror story, in that it traffics in the kind of dread and angst that comes from watching one’s surroundings crumble around them while they struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy and control over their lives. This general feeling of fear and loathing has permeated this country in the last few years as the national and world economies have gone straight into the toilet and left people scrambling and struggling to just make ends meet on a weekly basis.
In Take Shelter, Curtis (Michael Shannon, Groundhog Day, Bad Boys II) lives in a small Ohio community with his devoted wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt) and their young daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart). He works a good construction job, has friends, his wife sells homemade linens and crafts on the weekends and goes to church on Sundays – all in all, things are pretty good.
Except for the fact that Curtis is starting to have visions and nightmares of an oncoming storm of biblical proportions, a storm that frightens him deeply and which compels him to clean up the old tornado shelter in the backyard. But the dreams don’t end with a storm; he sees faceless intruders and his pet dog attacks him and those closest to him attack him and it all leaves Curtis very on edge and afraid. He’s not only afraid of this possible impending danger, but he fears that he may be suffering from mental illness, much like his mother did before him. As Curtis deals with these nightmares and fears, his world slowly starts to crumble around him, and he does everything he can to keep it all together.
You know the term “powerhouse performance?” That’s what Michael Shannon does here with Curtis. Most of the movie he keeps everything internal, something bubbling right underneath his surface, an uneasy energy seeping through his pores as he moves through the story. And of course when things get bottled up like this, it inevitably leads to a magnificent and frightening explosion, and Shannon just knocks this one so far out of the park that it left the stadium and smashed a car’s windshield in the parking lot.
It helps greatly that this awesome performance is surrounded by a great movie. Take Shelter is a small, character-driven film, but it still has a sense of great weight and importance as Curtis ends up fighting with himself and with the outside elements that seem to conspire against him. There are a number of literally awe-inspiring moments, and after awhile it becomes impossible to tell if Curtis is seeing something real or in his head, like when he pulls over on the side of the road at night and watches an intense lightning storm fill up the sky. And thanks to the shot compositions and direction, the Midwestern American landscape of incredibly flat lands and expansive sky has never looked quite so menacing and full of potential danger.
This is easily one of the best movies of the year, very layered and textured and done right on just about every level. Every performance is great, with Shannon being particularly electrifying, and it has one of those endings that has just the right amount of ambiguity, allowing the viewers to ask their own questions and debate what they had just seen. It definitely left me wanting to view the movie again immediately, and I will do so the next chance I get because it’s that good.
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