Michael Shannon in Take Shelter.
Dread is the great black art of cinema. More than terror or suspense, dread requires far more finesse and yields greater tension. Jeff Nichols, a fantastically talented young director, has made a minor classic of unease with his Midwestern noir Take Shelter, which dances between the hallucinations of mental illness and real environmental apocalypse.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) has a stable construction job, a beautiful, bright wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a sweet daughter. But he is beginning to have horrible, apocalyptic dreams. Soon he begins to hallucinate in daytime, seeing portentous abnormal bird formations and hearing thunder on clear days. Overwhelmed with dread, Curtis turns his attention towards building a storm shelter in his backyard. Because of a family history of mental illness, Curtis is aware of how unstable his behavior seems, but he presses on—mortgaging his house, jeopardizing his job, and alienating his family to build security against the oncoming storm.
Take Shelter is grounded in two beautifully realized performances. Michael Shannon takes center stage with his wondrously natural performance. And Jessica Chastain—well, she’s s a superstar and the first genuine heir apparent to Meryl Streep. Both of these actors, alongside Nichols, have an easy understanding of blue-collar rural life. Take Shelter respects the dignity of its characters, making the film’s dread all the more crushing.
Take Shelter uses its modest budget to its advantage as small details take on a grim heft (greasy, motor-oil-like rain is particularly unnerving). The grand vision Take Shelter conjures with such limited resources reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story: when Ridley Scott was filming the exploration scene of the alien planet in Alien, the small set made the planet look puny and unimpressive. So Scott shot children in tiny astronaut suits to get a desired daunting effect. No amount of money could buy how haunting that scene appeared on first viewing, and I can’t help but think that unlimited CGI has opened a Pandora’s Box of apathy. The most imaginative films of the last few years (Take Shelter, Primer, Let the Right One In, Pan’s Labyrinth) have been made on budgets less than an average Jennifer Aniston vehicle.
I missed Take Shelter when it was in the theaters, but I have no doubt that it’s well on its way to becoming a cult classic. A