Unnatural Disasters

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By Tom Hall

Take Shelter looks at a man overtaken by real, and perceived, anxieties

There is an ineffable fear lying just beneath the surface of the modern American experience, a sense that powerful forces beyond our control are conspiring to have a profound impact on our lives. A visit to any of the 24-hour news channels only serves to reinforce the anxiety; images of war and revolution only make way for stories of political gridlock, missing children, true crime and natural disasters. The uncertainty fomented by these images populates our nightmares, spinning its own terrible narrative. How do we act rationally, how do we keep our cool, when everything seems to be falling apart around us?

Jeff Nichols’ extraordinary new film, Take Shelter, stands this proposition on its head; what happens if our anxiety overtakes us, if the rational world suddenly falls away and disaster looms everywhere we look?

Curtis (the astonishing Michael Shannon) is an Ohio construction worker with a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain), a daughter (Tova Stewart), a modest house and visions that, very soon, it will all be swept away in an apocalyptic storm. Curtis’ nightmarish hallucinations inspire him to action and he scrambles to prepare for the coming disaster and protect his family at all costs. But the more time he spends in preparation for the apocalypse he perceives as imminent, the more his real life begins to suffer; his working life, his role as husband and father—all of it pales against Curtis’ burning need to find a haven from his nightmares.

But where? As the clouds gather around him, Curtis responds by undertaking the construction of an underground shelter, a massive project that draws the scrutiny of his family and, crucially, his employer. But when the local news channel announces an impending storm, Curtis and his family descend into the darkness of the buried sanctuary, riding out the storm, terrified of what may await them when they get back above ground.

Nichols’ premise takes on an added spiritual dimension by his decision to place the audience in complete cinematic empathy with Curtis, legitimizing his fear as more than just the panicked delirium of a troubled soul. Take Shelter is ambiguous about Curtis’ visions; tension is formed by the thought, planted ever so carefully inside each of us, that perhaps what Curtis sees is indeed prophetic. This is not a film that plays games with perspective or has a bag of tricks up its sleeve—we see what Curtis sees and we fear what might be true. The decision to honor Curtis’ point of view is crucial to the dramatic success of the film and pays massive dividends as the movie spirals toward its harrowing climax.

In addition to a formally adventurous use of CGI effects in an otherwise low-budget American independent film (Take Shelter would be a unique cinematic experience if only for its use of effects), Shannon’s performance as Curtis, a rational, working-class man who can scarcely believe what he’s seeing in the world around him, is electrifying, a wide-eyed descent into the unknown that should garner award season attention.

The film, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, seems all the more prescient after the storms of 2011, when several American communities experienced devastating tornadoes and flooding. Take Shelter does not exploit that experience, but instead elevates it to the level of great cinema, a powerful reminder that art’s examination of human subjectivity, the darkest places inside each of us, remains fertile, uncharted territory.

In a time of both manmade calamaties and bizarre acts of god, Michael Shannon gives a stunning performance as a construction worker father who becomes obsessed by what he believes is an impending apocalyptic storm. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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