Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a good life and is told so by his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), who admires Curtis’s family and the home in Ohio that he has built around him. Curtis is a good husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a good father to their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His construction job not only brings in a decent salary but it also provides an excellent insurance plan that will help cover the costs of upcoming surgery for Hannah. And yet despite all of this, Curtis is having vivid nightmares and waking visions of an approaching apocalyptic storm and mysterious figures who threaten his family. While terrified by what he is seeing, Curtis is also grimly aware that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his paranoia and visions intensify, Curtis becomes obsessed with building an elaborate tornado shelter while trying to understand what is happening to him psychologically.
Films about mental illness often present a character loosing their grasp on reality as a melodramatic tragedy or even occasionally as something that is quaintly liberating, as if that character now has a privileged view of the world. Attempts to depict how a mentally ill character views the world tend to be hysterical and romantically tormented rather than insightful. Conditions such as schizophrenia are frequently confused with various personality disorders, resulting in a common misbelief that people with schizophrenia are likely to be criminally violent. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing to see such an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of a man experiencing the early signs of schizophrenia in Take Shelter.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols establishes early that Curtis is aware that something is not right, rather than making him a passive character who succumbs to his condition. Curtis seeks help and tries to understand what is happening to him. What makes the film so dramatically interesting is that while he is able to realise he is seeing and hearing things that are not there, he doesn’t have the same self-recognition in regards to his growing paranoia. So while seemingly aware that his premonitions about the coming storm are imagined, he still compulsively pours time, money and resources into building the shelter despite the effect it has on his work and his family. The shelter becomes symbolic of his subconscious; something for him to retreat into while the storm hopefully passes above him. Curtis also begins to increasingly distrust those around him, most tragically those he has the most intense feelings for, beginning with the family dog who gets cast out of the house after he dreams it attacked him.
Michael Shannon has portrayed mentally unstable characters several times in the past, in films such as Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. His unconventional brooding looks give him a commanding and mysterious presence on screen that makes him so suitable for such roles. In Take Shelter he eclipses everything he has done previously with what will more than likely be a career-defining performance. As Curtis’s wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain plays a role similar to the supportive and strong mother and wife role she had in The Tree of Life. However, she gets a lot more to do in Take Shelter and like Shannon, delivers a beautiful performance. Despite the fears, confusion and anger she feels for what Curtis is going through, and putting her through, she remains by his side. The most powerful moments in the film involve either Samantha’s devastating responses to Curtis’s suffering or her determined confrontations with him. Take Shelter paints an extraordinary picture of what it means to unconditionally love somebody, making the representation of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage something profoundly moving.
The final scene in Take Shelter is a little perplexing and if the rest of the film hadn’t been so well crafted and clearly considered, it would be tempting to dismiss the final moments as literal and therefore undermining a lot of what the film had previously done to present the nature of Curtis’s visions. However, upon reflection it feels far more like a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion in order to present the world that Curtis, and by extension his family, now must live in. It’s one of many aspects about the film that will leave audiences lost deep in their thoughts throughout the rest of the day after seeing it.
There is so much empathy and understanding in the way Take Shelter creates an engaging story out of a widely misunderstood condition. It is one of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. It certainly makes films like The Beaver feel incredible superficial by comparison. The cinematic effects used to evoke Curtis’s visions create a vivid impression of his condition without ever feeling exploitive. The slow burning nature of the drama means that a number of incredibly tense moments creep up without warning to make so much of Take Shelter heartbreakingly suspenseful.