Title: Take Shelter
Year: 2011
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Play time: 
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriters: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigha

Was first convinced that I was watching an allegory about the fragility of the Good Life: a construction worker (Michael Shannon), modestly scraping by in suburban Ohio, is tormented by visions of everything he treasures being brutally ripped away from him by natural disasters, lurking assailants, and acts of God. Disturbed, he starts taking real-life precautions against the imagined threats: locks away the gentle family dog that bit him in his dream; starts building a shelter in his back yard because a tornado hit the house in one of his visions. It is indeed scary, when you think about it, how easily one’s entire life can be decimated; the key is not to think about it. For a while, Take Shelter is a movie about a man who suddenly finds himself unable to do that.

Then it becomes something else: a more straightforward film about mental illness. Shannon’s Curtis, we learn, has a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his dreams get more and more pervasive and frightening, he starts seriously considering the possibility that he might be walking the same path his mother went down when she was around the same age: a breakdown followed by indefinite institutionalization. At the same time as he seems to be aware that he’s suffering from delusions — he seeks help and is honest with his counselors and doctors — he can’t resist their power, and his downward spiral continues. Is it possible to be acutely aware that you’re losing your grip on sanity, but not be able to do anything to stop it?

Take Shelter is beautiful and insinuating, with a killer sound design and accomplished performances by Shannon and Jessica Chastain as his wife. But the film’s two halves pull against each other in an unsatisfying way, forcing it to vacillate between a grandiose metaphor for the anxieties of middle-class existence and a visceral exploration of a man’s descent into madness. Combining the two seems inherently contradictory: either Curtis is insane and the rest of us can relax, or we’re all susceptible to his plight in our own ways, which seems to trivialize bona fide mental illness. The ending, which I think is meant to be ambiguous but is actually just kind of dumb, doesn’t help. Even so, this is a compelling, unique, relentlessly interesting film.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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