I missed this from director Jeff Nichols at cinemas – you’d have had to be fast to find it anywhere – and avoided it that Michael Shannon was doing his mad act again, something he’ll be typecast by if he doesn’t start to smile soon in a way that won’t terrify children. The problem, I can see, is that ‘Take Shelter’ appears to be a supernatural premonition thriller in the style of ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ or’The Last Wave’, but really it’s a zeitgeist movie for the unspoken mood in parts of the US heartland, with Texas suffering droughts and wildfires that compound repossessions and financial difficulties.
Curtis, his wife (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter live a happy but economically tight life on the edge of tornado alley. Curtis starts to experience disturbing dreams that seem too real for comfort – his dog attacks him, dead birds fall from the sky, oily rain heralds a cataclysmic storm. Knowing that his mother was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, Curtis tries to keep it together until, overpowered with dread, he sets about protecting his family by building an immense – and expensive – bunker in his garden. He’s a physically large man, and often seems to be containing the potential for great violence.
You can see where this is going – his debts will mount, his health care will prove inadequate, his job will be on the line, his daughter will not be able to afford her operation, his marriage will crumble – but nothing prepares you for the power of the set-pieces, one in which he is confronted by his betrayed best friend at a company outing, the other when his wife forces him to confront his deteriorating mental state head-on.
At this point I’m thinking Wait, this is a lose-lose film; if Curtis is wrong about the imminent collapse of everything then he follows his mother’s route, if he’s right, it’s the end of the world. But the ending – arguably controversial – is subtler than that, and I read it as a symbol of understanding. However, it’s almost impossible not to read the present economic situation of the US into the film as stress fractures the lives of ordinary decent people.
It’s brave and frequently beautiful filmmaking that delivers more food for thought that its advertising promises – but to be fair, it must have been a bugger to market accurately. And although the subject is grim, the racheting suspense will keep you glued to the screen. All in all, really rather brilliant.