Not unlike Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Jeff Nichols’ moody drama Take Shelter is a deliberately paced meditation on mental illness and the end of days. Although I would describe both films this same way to viewers unfamiliar with the material, Take Shelter explores the themes with a down-to-earth approach and—unless you live in a mansion on a sprawling estate complete with stables and ballroom—more relatable characters.
Our protagonist Curtis, played by Michael Shannon, is a blue-collar family-man with a challenging but near-idealic life. Curtis and his beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) have to work hard to make ends meet and provide treatment for their hearing-impaired daughter, but things are looking up. Hopes are high. As storms roll in and interrupt his work routine, Curtis begins to struggle with disturbing apocalyptic visions.
Whether or not Take Shelter qualifies as a horror film may be up for debate, but these visually stunning sequences are deeply unsettling. The birds panic and weave unnatural patterns through the sky. Dark clouds gather. Rust-colored rain falls. The world around him turns to violence. These events haunt his dreams and he wakes in the throes of an anxiety attack almost nightly.
Well aware that schizophrenia runs in his family, Curtis tries to cope with both the certainty that his mind is turning against him and the nagging possibility that his fears are valid; that an apocalyptic storm really is on its way. Although he quietly seeks help through therapy and medication, he’s unable to keep these nightmares from affecting his actions or his family’s financial and social well-being. Most evident in his obsession with fixing up the property’s old storm shelter and an increasing sense of mistrust.
Saying much more about the plot would be a mistake. Is he losing his grip on reality? Is he seeing a glimpse of the future? That’s the question. If a two-hour running time and a slower pace aren’t a turnoff, you’ll just have to watch and discover the answers along with him. The patient viewer is rewarded with an affecting descent into uncertainty and terror from Shannon, creepy and beautiful cinematography, and a very real sense of dread.
At the very least, it’s an excellent companion piece to Melancholia if you want a pretty and depressing double feature.