Surely Michael Shannon will get the chance to play a nice, normal guy in a prominent role one of these days. He’ll get cast as someone who clearly sees reality just as it is and faces no burdensome difficulty brought on by his very surroundings chortling in malevolent satisfaction while bending around his fragile psyche. He’ll be the stabilizing force of reason as Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz or someone flutters around him in a love-stung stupor. That will undoubtedly be useful as he tries to establish a career built upon displays of range instead of the particularly juicy typecasting he faces now, but there’s still no reason to rush into that. Take Shelter proves that Shannon still has a lot to offer locked into the space of a man cracking under the strain of his own cognitive uncertainty.
In the film, Shannon plays Curtis, a regular working stiff with a dependable job that leaves dirt under his fingernails and gives him money to put towards an operation for his hearing-impaired daughter. By all appearances, he lives a largely uneventful middle class life until particularly vivid nightmares begin coming to him with terrible frequency. Curtis has apocalyptic visions that he can’t quite shake, even upon waking. The pain he feels in the dream stays with him throughout the day and he’s uncontrollably wary of trusted figures who exacted some sort of aggression against him in that disturbed slumber. Soon, imagery and sounds from the dreams begin to intrude upon his waking perception, and Curtis finds himself compelled to convert a modest storm shelter in his backyard into a bunker better suited for hiding away from a long-term hellscape.
The debut of writer-director Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter has remarkable thematic overlap with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, at least in terms of positing that mental illness may actually be representative of prescience rather than disturbance. Nichols’s film has none of the stylistic grandness of the von Trier work, opting instead for a more utilitarian and therefore realistic look at the repercussions a person faces as they crumble away from the inside. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, although it’s fair to say that von Trier’s visual poetry makes storytelling flaws more forgivable. He’s clearly taking liberties with logic in order to reconfigure the emotional weight as needed. When Nichols stumbles in the storytelling, it’s just a stumble.
There are no issues with the acting, however. Shannon is intense and sensational in his role, opting for the unsettling internalizing of his mounting fear and confusion rather than railing against the shivering reality he faces. More than anything else, he plays the character as utterly defeated by what he’s going through, a far more heart-rending portrayal than the sort of showy hysterics that many other actors can’t resist in similar roles. There’s equally excellent work from Jessica Chastain as his beleaguered wife, slowly discovering her husband’s ailment and then carefully, cautiously developing strategies to deal with it. With great care, Chastain shows that poise in the face of hardship is often something a person has to steel herself for, and she just keeps adding more and more complexity to her portrayal as the film goes on.
It’s entirely possible that Nichols is going for something highly allegorical with Take Shelter. Curtis’s disregarded paranoia can stand if for any number of warning cries chiming out across modern discourse, from the environmental woes of global warming to the creepy bigotry of Islamophobia. It works best, though, in its plainest interpretation, as relatively straightforward depiction of the agony someone feels when they begin to doubt the validity of their own perception.