'Take Shelter': a stormy, apocalyptic knockout
A movie review of "Take Shelter," writer-director Jeff Nichols' unnerving tale of an Ohio couple (Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain) who are plagued by his nightmares and hallucinations.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Take Shelter,' with Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 120 minutes. Rated R for language, subject matter. Harvard Exit.
Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" is a knockout — one of the best films of the year — but it's so stunningly effective at establishing a sense of dread that it's almost impossible to recommend it without reservations. You may leave the theater both shaken and stirred by its ambiguously apocalyptic vision of a future that seems quite plausible.
Nichols' script accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do — the only drawback is that you may not be in the market for such a serious variation on the Noah story, which is usually soaked in whimsy ("Field of Dreams"), played for laughs (Bill Cosby's "I want you to build me an ark" routine) or becomes the basis for seductive science fiction ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind").
Using a minimum of special effects and fantasy elements, Nichols focuses on an Ohio couple, Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who are troubled by his nightmares and hallucinations, which could be evidence of a mental illness that runs in the family.
Curtis finds himself suddenly driven to build a costly shelter that could be regarded as a reasonable defense against the tornadoes that have plagued the area. Or not. As he endangers his job and the health insurance that their daughter needs, he begins to seem unhinged.
Curtis checks out library books about schizophrenia, talks to a doctor who admits he's out of his depth and visits his disturbingly vague mother (Kathy Baker). Trying to hide his disorientation from his wife, Curtis alienates his neighbors and boss and fights with his best friend (Shea Whigham).
Shannon, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing a Cassandra-like character in "Revolutionary Road," is once again perfectly cast as a character driven by his need to tell inconvenient truths. His scenes with Chastain are especially delicate, proving once more that this versatile young actress has a special gift for transforming roles that could have been one-note.
Nichols, who was praised for his little-seen story of a Southern family feud, "Shotgun Stories" (also starring Shannon), consistently avoids easy melodrama. He concentrates on Curtis' earnest, sometimes maddening attempts to understand himself and/or the forces that appear to be controlling his behavior.
The final scene is a marvel. Without narrative or visual tricks, Nichols pulls together most of the story elements that he's carefully established for two full hours. At the same time, the movie communicates a sense of mystery — and dread — that can't be shaken.
John Hartl: email@example.com
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