Learn from the past, plan for the future, live in the moment. Sounds like a smart way to operate, but it's hard. In the drama Take Shelter, the villain is dread. The apocalypse is also a factor, and maybe mental illness, but the villain is dread. We build lives. We know how easily everything can come apart. Writer-director Jeff Nichols offers a scenario where one man's most immediate threat appears to be his own fear of disaster.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a small-town Ohio husband and father — a good man — who begins experiencing vivid, terrifying apocalyptic dreams. He worries whether the dreams are omens, or whether he is mentally ill. There's a history of mental illness in his family. Quietly, without telling his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) or best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), he seeks help. He talks to his mom (Kathy Baker), who was institutionalized when she was younger. He talks to professionals — the best he can afford given the family's tight budget.
But the thing is this: you can be aware of mental illness, you can seek treatment for mental illness, but being aware of it does not necessarily mean you can control it. The nightmares continue. The anxiety increases. There's a storm coming.
Maybe Curtis isn't mentally ill. Maybe the dreams are visions. Six of one, half dozen of the other, because the nightmares are making him crazy. Take Shelter works as a tale of the fragility of our lives, a psychological horror story, or a harrowing look at what it's like to come unglued.
The cast is uniformly good, but Michael Shannon shoulders the story, and he is excellent. Jeff Nichols' movie is a fine piece of work — he creates a Middle America that rings true without becoming hokey or self-congratulatory. The film is well-crafted and efficient, with lots of details added to make the family and the community specific while still remaining representative.
Nichols impressively handles Curtis' relationships and his slow breakdown. With a story like this, credibility is vital, and the writer-director gets it right. The emotions are all there, the sentimentality isn't. Particularly impressive is a scene where Curtis gets into a fistfight at a public gathering and then freaks out. No one intervenes — not because they don't care, not because they're cowardly, but because what they are witnessing is so alien that they don't know how to process it.
I got tired of the nightmares about midway through the film — don't you just hate it when apocalyptic visions get repetitive? I think it was more my problem than the film's. The story registered so much with me on a human level that I wasn't wild about the more fantastical elements. Take Shelter isn't an M. Night Shyamalan-type thriller, though the conclusion will give you something to talk about. It's a drama, a powerful drama, and one of the best movies of the year.