Review: Take Shelter (2011)

I live in a more rural area, and if there’s a storm a comin’ my family is most likely screwed!

Written By: Jeff Nichols
Directed By: Jeff Nichols

Is there a storm, or is it all in Curtis’ head? That is the massive question that Take Shelter is framed around. It is that question that has caused some to herald Take Shelter as an instant classic and for others to dismiss it as a film that ultimately betrays itself. By the time Take Shelter ended I was at the point when that question needed to be answered, yet I didn’t feel answering the question was all that necessary.

The reason I felt that answering the question wasn’t necessary is due to the core themes of the film remaining strong no matter what answer is given. In fact, Take Shelter doesn’t truly posit any questions that require an answer. It presents its themes, its characters, and its events and leaves it up to the viewer to interpret what they are seeing. This is where the individual response comes into play, and in my case I formed a response based upon Curtis dealing with a mental illness. My reading doesn’t negate the horror of what I witnessed during the film, or the ambiguity of the human mind as presented in the form of Curtis’ dreams. I find that my reading strengthens every aspect of the film, and brings out the core themes of the film in vivid fashion.

The ending of the film is the subject of the most debate among the people who have seen Take Shelter. I interpreted the ending not as the coming of a literal storm, but as Curtis once again entering a dream. The difference is that this time he is not on his own. By finally opening up to his family and seeking professional help Curtis has allies against the coming storm. There are no monsters in Curtis’ final dream, only his family, who are ready and willing to stand by him as they face the storm. The final storm isn’t a bad thing, it is simply a representation of the storm of mental illness that the family must now face.

During the course of the film reality and dream bleed into one another. I don’t believe that Mr. Nichols does this to play tricks with his audience. It’s a case of Curtis being unable to tell reality from dream, and visually Mr. Nichols conveys the convergence of reality and dream state terrifically. After a few seconds in a dream I was able to tell that it was a dream, but my knowledge of whether or not it was a dream wasn’t the point of the unreliable point of view. It’s important that the film give the sense of Curtis’ struggles with separating reality from dream. Take Shelter does this in a way that never feels cheap, and that only adds to the high stakes.

Speaking of stakes, Curtis isn’t losing his grasp of reality in a vacuum. He has a wife, a daughter, a job, a best friend, a dog, and more. Curtis has a lot to lose, and that is what makes it so hard to watch a good man lose his grasp on everything in his life that he holds dear. Take Shelter was a satisfying watch, it grabbed me emotionally and intellectually. But, there was nothing about Mr. Nichols’ film that equated to an easy watch. There’s a subdued intensity constantly bubbling under the surface during Take Shelter. At times the film is dripping with tension and suspense, but there’s never truly any release until the very end and that makes watching the film a harrowing experience.

Anchoring all of the above are the performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as Curtis and Samantha respectively. This was my first real exposure to Mr. Shannon and needless to say I was blown away. He has a physicality to him that is hard to pin down, and there is an intensity behind his eyes that could burn down a town. He has a few loud moments as Curtis, but on the whole he makes Curtis his own by using a wonderfully restrained and scared style. Miss Chastain is rock steady, she is the logical one next to Curtis’ ever deepening paranoia. Her performance is one of restraint and of knowledge. The relationship between Curtis and Samantha feels very real and very lived in. This is due to the wonderful performances from Miss Chastain and Mr. Shannon.

I don’t think my words have done Take Shelter justice. I’ve said a lot, all of it positive, but I’m not sure if I’ve adequately expressed why I loved Take Shelter as much as I did. The film took a hold of me early on and as the intensity of Curtis’ journey built so did my enthrallment with the film. Take Shelter is a great film, with a great ending, and a wonderfully stripped down view of mental illness. There are no easy outs for Curtis from his situation, and Mr. Nichols’ film refuses to allow the viewer any easy outs either. Take Shelter is deserving of its status as an instant classic, and a film that seems destine to become even more of a classic every time it is revisited.




9 responses to “Review: Take Shelter (2011)

  1. I love your analysis, and not just because on a great number of level it agrees with mine. Nichols’ attention to detail is something I really appreciate with the film and I kept thinking about the title what does it mean? And eventually I felt that it was about finding solace in loved ones, literally taking shelter which is what Curtis does by opening up to Sam (two significant scenes in the film are embraces between the two and their daughter) and that’s why whether the storm at the end is real or not it doesn’t matter much because they’re together. They’ve taken shelter.

    Two of my favourite performances of the last year from Jessica and Michael.

  2. I don’t agree that the film is essentially a view of mental illness; I think it’s primarily about something else – however! I agree that this film will engender different and equally valid interpretations – and that it’s meant to, so our different interpretations about it don’t really put us at odds at all. We agree in all the essentials – particularly on the point that the question of the end doesn’t need to be answered but also on the point that there is a powerful story here, filled with beautifully built tension and wonderful performances. Such a great film – thanks for a great write-up!

  3. I think if anyone but Shannon would have played the part I would have liked the film more but Michael Shannon as become the go to guy for portraying the disturbed (for a truly mesmerizing and edgy example see Bug (he was also great in Revolutionary Road but already retreading old ground by the time he did Herzog’s My Son My Son). He’s very good in this film but to me it felt like a variation on a theme rather than something unique,
    Sometimes how much you like a film is all about what you saw before it.

  4. Andrew – Great points all around. 🙂

    Melissa – I’m interested, what do you think the film is about?

    Paul – I don’t have any problem with variations on a theme if that variation happens to be great. Shannon may be playing a variation but I found it to be a great variation myself.

  5. (Sorry my delayed reply!) Hmmm, it’s difficult to explain in just a few sentences. I don’t think the film is NOT about mental illness, but I do think that it is more a vehicle for something else, rather than just that. It’s a little like Melancholia in that regard, I think; in Melancholia the main character has severe depression, and so in part, the film is about that and the effect it has on her family – many have read Melancholia as being just about that, and I think that’s fine. But I think that Justine’s depression in Melancholia is also a metaphor for the mindset of the visionary artist – someone who cannot really join in the pomp and show of ordinary life because the artist sees a deeper, darker true reality. Melancholia is thus just as much – if not more – about art and the artist and the truth the artist conveys as it is about depression. (I tried to capture something of that idea in my review, if you had the chance to read it.) So, Take Shelter is like Melancholia. Curtis is probably actually mentally ill – there’s not much reason to doubt that. But I also think Curtis is a little like Justine – from his position of insanity, he actually can see something more clearly than others can. In my review, I connected Curtis to the Shakespearean fool and to Shakespeare’s mad characters; it is only when King Lear goes insane, for example, that he understands the emotional truth of his position, that he understands the weight of what he’s done; through insanity, he becomes more sane. So Curtis is a kind of visionary, I think, too. Exactly what doom he’s predicting is purposefully unclear, and I think the individual viewer can read into his prediction whatever doom they feel most, whether it’s linked to the economy or the government or to the community (and the breakdown thereof), it doesn’t really matter. Whatever it is, hints in the film point to fissures in the fabric of society, fissures that are outside of Curtis, not just in his mad mind. To me, the film is the filmmaker’s reflection on fears we are experiencing in our time, in our country – fears that probably will come true, some of them, at some time or another. (Sorry the long response. I hope it makes sense. 🙂 )

  6. It makes sense, and I’m sure once I see Melancholia it will make even more sense. I do think there are many layers to Take Shelter, and the more one thinks about the film the more layers that are revealed. I believe that at its core the film is about mental illness, but its core can lead the viewer in many different directions and interpretations, yours being one of many very valid and very interesting interpretations. As always Melissa, it was a joy to read your comments. 🙂

  7. I’d certainly love to hear what you think of Melancholia!

  8. It’s a movie I’m looking forward to checking out at some point. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Podcast Review: The Film Talk | Bill's Movie Emporium

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