My youngest child loves to pepper me with questions about everything from the old days, of which I apparently am an expert. Lately, this includes Bible stories. He is particularly fascinated by the plagues that God brought down to help Moses convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. He puzzles over why the Egyptian ruler didn’t see the signs, which were so vividly dumped upon him. How could anybody ignore a plague of locusts or rivers of blood?
Good question, kid, and one that gets mesmerizing play in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, in which Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), an Ohio working man with a wife and a deaf child, begins to see ominous signs indicating something bad. As in . . . Something. Wicked. This. Way. Comes.
At first, Curtis discounts his premonitions of evil, chalking up torrential downpours and lightning bolts that seem like terrestrial firefights to the side effects of a virus or bad cold. He’s of the heartland, and not given to psychoanalysis or parsing the meaning of life with his best friend; he’s certainly not about to come clean to wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who’s busy keeping house, taxiing daughter Hannah to her numerous doctors’ and therapists’ appointments and augmenting the family income by selling homemade curtains. As we slowly begin to take measure of Curtis’ situation, we find out that his mother (Kathy Baker) has been institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia since she was about her son’s age. As Curtis’ apocalyptic nightmares and increasingly weird behavior wreak havoc on his life and livelihood, we, the audience, are undecided: Is he having a psychological breakdown, or is there really some disaster looming over us all?
Take Shelter is pensive. It sets up the plot and backstories methodically, but in a way that gets us into the rhythm of Curtis’s life. The actual fact of working, of having a job, is an important element here, as are subtle reminders of things like health insurance, rising gas prices, and bank loans; these are things that keep all of us up at night, calculating costs and imagining worst-case scenarios. (This also underscores the idea that perhaps Curtis’ affliction is simply modern-day stress.)
Nichols constantly keeps us on our toes, not knowing really what is at the root of Curtis’ omens. The way in which the movie depicts mental illness—real or perceived—is stunning. Curtis’ need to find out whether he has inherited his mother’s illness is coupled with his increasing panic that he will be unable to provide for his family. The movie is a constant reminder of the stresses and fissures that could, at any moment, crack apart our own respective domains. It forces us to question whether we’re ready for that.
Known already for playing oddball characters, Michael Shannon deftly depicts the growing paranoia of what is essentially an honest, hardworking man. As he descends into the abyss of his panic, his body, even his facial features, change. They become—almost impossibly—more ravaged and gaunt. His great breakdown is shocking, more so in the way that Chastain’s Samantha responds. Chastain has delivered several solid performances this year, but here she takes charge, turning what could have been a one-dimensional supporting-wife role into something more compelling and steely.
My only complaint about the movie might be the filmmakers’ choice to resolve, in the final scene, the issue of Curtis’s mental state, since the question of his sanity had been the hook that snagged us in all along. At the same time, that scene provides us the indelible opportunity of witnessing Chastain’s priceless reaction—and imagining what we, ourselves, would do in her place.