Curtis LaForche is a working-class husband and father in rural Ohio whose recurring dreams have caused him to panic. He wakes up in a sweat after experiencing visions of a coming storm that rains thick liquid like motor oil, turning both animals and humans into savages. The question for Curtis is whether these vivid delusions are indeed premonitions or perhaps the first signs of an hereditary mental illness that he has been expecting for years. As the visions escalate, second-time director Jeff Nichols shoots them like the early scenes from a horror film: the pervasive sound of distant thunder signalling something terrible. It may (or may not) be a world-ending deluge, but it’s going to be something big.
Playing Curtis is Michael Shannon, an actor whose demeanour is never anything short of intense. Scratch that — with his pock-marked face and dark, probing eyes, he probably emerged from the womb at intensity-level 10. Best known as the (intense) prohibition agent in Boardwalk Empire, Shannon creates a nuanced performance that balances paranoia, fear and insanity with a level of sympathy that suggests that an Oscar-nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.
At its core, Take Shelter is about what a man does to protect his family. Curtis looks like he has it all: a wife, a daughter and a house. His best friend and colleague, Dewart (Shannon’s Boardwalk Empire cohort Shea Whigham) tells him he has the perfect life, but to Curtis that also means he has the most to lose. As he begins to load his tornado shelter with enough supplies to outlast the apocalypse, he conceals his visions from his wife (Jessica Chastain). In order to expand the shelter to accommodate his daughter, he ‘borrows’ equipment from work, putting his job at risk. His deaf daughter is scheduled for an operation to restore her hearing but it’s entirely dependent on his insurance, which relies on him keeping his job, which requires him not to be insane. And there’s the rub.
The term ‘psycho-thriller’ would be both an apt and misleading label for Take Shelter – after all, Curtis’ possible psychoses pose the biggest threat to his family. How will they eventually manifest themselves? In trying to save his family, will Curtis end up being the one who endangers them?
Shannon’s performance is an absolutely fascinating look at a man aware of his own decline. In a scene where he seeks help from a counsellor, Curtis presents her with the results of a self-administered paranoid schizophrenia test that he found in the back of a medical textbook. He is conscious that he may be becoming ill (as his mother did many years before) but still compelled to act on his dreams. Before he begins his project to expand the storm shelter, he draws up a line budget in order to determine whether he can afford a project that logically, he knows is insane.
Take Shelter is very much a product of our time: with the economy in its current condition, many families in America are dependent on a single parent’s income. A lost job will very often mean no health insurance for the family and a defaulted mortgage. Households are on the knife edge between living comfortably and being completely screwed. Perhaps Curtis’ fears are the same as many other parents: do they have enough to tide their families through the mother of all rainy days? When the storm comes, will they have the choice to take shelter?