Jeff Nichols follows up his self-assured feature debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, with another collaboration with actor Michael Shannon. If there were any justice in the world, Shannon would have been nominated for an Oscar this past season for his work here. Was there really any reason Brad Pitt needed a nomination for Moneyball, in which his entire performance consisted of mumbling and chewing tobacco?
Take Shelter is a complex and challenging film that poses question about faith, spirituality, and the drive to provide for one’s family. In lesser hands this could veer into the territory of some of those awful Christian-themed films, but Nichols isn’t concerned with pushing a message on the audience. Instead he’s much more interested in asking questions. Shannon’s Curtis is a blue-collar family man doing his best to be a good husband to his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah. But he starts having dreams where his family is threatened or hurt, and when he wakes up from them, he’s physically depleted and the pain from them lasts for days. As time goes on, the dreams become more intense, even apocalyptic, and Curtis begins experiencing waking hallucinations as well as penetrating migraine headaches. Every part of his being is telling him to listen to his inner voices, and that this is all happening for a reason. There are Biblical allusions throughout, and Curtis keeps wondering if he’s been given divine information about some coming event like Noah or Moses, or if it’s all in his head. For as much as he wants to be able to trust himself, he fears he may simply be losing his mind. This is further complicated by the fact that his mother Sarah, played by an excellent Kathy Baker, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was Curtis’ age and now lives in an assisted living facility. Curtis knows he may be surrendering to the same disease; he seeks medical help but it’s not conclusive, and all the while he tries to hide his declining condition from his family to spare them from the same trauma he went through when his mother was committed.
There’s a beautiful and touching character arc here with Curtis and how he was abandoned, though not intentionally, growing up. As a result, he’s extremely emotionally vulnerable and has a great fear of abandonment. That same fear, flipped in on itself, has created this intense drive in him to never abandon his family and to protect them through anything. Yet, in trying to be a strong male provider for his family, he covers his own vulnerabilities and insecurities, and emotionally isolates himself. The possible onset of schizophrenia not only represents the same disease that took his mother returning for him, but also threatens to emotionally wreck his family in the same way his world was wrecked long ago.
Jessica Chastain plays his wife Samantha, and as always she finds incredible emotional nuance and range with something a lesser actress would have simply walked through. Samantha has a very narrow focus on a simple and happy home life. When Curtis begins to unravel, at first it’s something that she doesn’t really want to acknowledge. But as he gets worse, and his behavior becomes more erratic and he does things like building a bomb shelter in the back yard, her faith is tested as well– her ability to love the man and not the illusion, and her ability to stick by him wherever his journey may lead.
The bomb shelter in the backyard is one of many Biblical metaphors. Just as Noah built his boat after hearing messages from God, so Curtis has the bomb shelter. And the question is posited– is this a world where faith even exists any more? Is this a world where someone can listen if God were to give them a warning, or have we become so focused on explaining away everything through science that we’re now deaf to our own instincts and inner voices? Or was Joan of Arc simply schizophrenic, and is that all it has ever been when people believe they see signs or hear voices? We all live our lives ultimately having to depend on something to make decisions– a sense of right or wrong, our own instincts, or listening to our hearts. But what does this mean? And what do we do when those instincts become razor sharp, banging down our internal doors– yet without a reflection in the world around us? How much patience do we have, and how long can we wait without proof? Do we inevitably concede to trust those voices as long as it takes, or in the absence of tangible support, do we deny the strongest instincts that we have?
These are the questions Take Shelter asks of Curtis, and by proxy, asks us to consider as well. We’ve reached a place in time with our current technology where it’s given us so many alternatives to our own inner voices, and so many reasons to distrust them or abandon them altogether. Curtis is a simple man. He’s certainly not intellectual, but he’s not stupid, either. He has a wisdom within his own narrow life experience, but Take Shelter asks him to question everything about it. And the film Take Shelter itself is extremely intelligent. It never simplifies, never preaches. And it posits its questions in a way that should really connect with contemporary audiences. You couldn’t ask for two better lead actors than Shannon and Chastain, and they’re supported by excellent, often understated work from Baker, Shea Whigam as Curtis’ best friend, Ray MacKinnon as his brother, and Lisa Gay Hamilton as a counselor. This is a film that was hugely overlooked this year by much of America, and while it’s not some big Hollywood blockbuster with lots of explosions, it is structured somewhat like a dramatic thriller and may be able to connect with audiences who were never even made aware that it exists. Take Shelter often moves slowly, but it also does so purposefully, offering plenty of food for thought. And it features an emotionally compelling climax, and a final scene that should give audiences something to think about and consider for some time afterwards.