I don’t want to overtly go and call ‘Take Shelter’ a disappointment, because it’s not exactly that…I just didn’t fully get what I wanted out of it, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth that keeps my praise of the work in check. There are definitely things to like here, notably Michael Shannon’s excellent performance and Jessica Chastain’s terrific supporting turn, as well as many hints that writer/director Jeff Nichols has a bright future ahead, but I had major issues with the pacing and structure that the film chose to employ. It somewhat shoots itself in the foot in this regard. I like a slow burn as much as this next guy, but this story of a man possibly losing his mind and/or protecting his family from doom was just too slow, plain and simple. The film starts out with a lot of potential, but overstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes or so. A tighter grasp on the material could have led to me singing its praises like almost every other critic out there, but frankly, my thumb is down, albeit slightly. I definitely recognize what works in the flick, but I can’t overlook what doesn’t, and too much doesn’t work for me to get in line and speak of it as a cinematic highlight of the year.
Curtis (Shannon) is your average American living in Ohio. He’s got a wife named Samantha (Chastain) that he loves, a construction job, and a daughter named Hannah (Tova Stewart). His daughter has sever hearing problems, and they’re looking into a surgery that could help. Money is tight, but they’re not poor or anything. One day, Curtis begins having dreams and visions of an apocalyptic storm approaching his home. He ignores it at first, but soon the hallucinations (or are they?) are getting more violent and drive him to begin taking measures to protect his family. He begins overhauling the tornado shelter in his backyard to become a real survival structure, putting a strain on his family life, causing him to become a pariah in the town, and making him question his own sanity. As his mental state devolves and his family starts going into debt over this, he comes to a point where he really need to decide if he’s willing to lose his wife and daughter in his quest to keep them safe. The decisions Curtis makes are somewhat interesting, but the ponderous nature of the film keeps you from really being fully engaged in this uneven psychological drama.
Any discussion of this film has to begin with the acting. Michael Shannon has never been better than he is here, playing a man on the brink, not sure what to believe. You do feel for Curtis, and that’s a success story that the screenplay really needed to have. You spend almost every single moment with Shannon, and he’s a forceful presence in the flick, not always saying a lot, but letting his face and posture often do the talking. I’d say it’s among the 10 best performances I’ve seen in 2011. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to make much headway in the Best Actor race, as things are really clogging up right now, but it’ll be interesting to see if he makes an impression on voters. He sure made one on me. As for Jessica Chastain, I think this is her best shot at a Supporting Actress nomination. She’s better here than in ‘The Tree of Life’, with more screen time and more to do. Her scenes with Shannon are powerful yet mostly not overdone. She’s getting better with each film that she appears in, so I think it’s safe to say that she’ll be a force to be reckoned with in years to come. As for the supporting cast, no one really gets much to do besides the aforementioned two, but Shea Whigham (as Curtis’s best friend) and Tova Stewart leave nice impressions. Still, it’s very much the Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain show.
Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker with a great future ahead of him. Right now, he’s got this somewhat flawed film to go along with his strong previous work ‘Shotgun Stories’ as his calling card. Nichols has both strengths and weaknesses that impact him on the directorial and screenplay front. As a director, he’s got a knack for getting good work from his actors and compiling strong visuals, but he doesn’t yet know how to properly pace a film. When you combine that with his decision to repeat several things in his script, you get a movie that moves far too slowly to truly work. Now, I give him credit for writing an intriguing premise to a movie, but he ends up not being able to balance it all in the end. The final 10 minutes or so suggests a lot without explaining almost any of it, and while I was intrigued, I was also frustrated as well. Perhaps he and I have a philosophical and theological difference to our thinking (I’ll stay vague on that for fear of spoilers), but I still think he could have done better.
Overall, the acting keeps ‘Take Shelter’ afloat, but I just didn’t see the Oscar player that many others do here. It’s still something worth seeing in my opinion, but something to see with expectations kept firmly in check. It’s far from a bad movie, but it’s no doubt a flawed one. The beauty so many have spoken of was somewhat lost on me, but perhaps it won’t be for others. Michael Shannon’s performance is probably enough to make it worthwhile, and when you factor in Jessica Chastain’s work and the chance to see a young filmmaker slowly learning the ropes in Jeff Nichols, the final product has more than a few selling points…it just has a gang of issues to me as well. If you have an interest in the film, check it out and let me know if you agree with my analysis…I’ll be interested to see what the consensus is, if there is any.