Take Shelter is a provocative original from writer-director Jeff Nichols, built on the foundation of a searing performance by Michael Shannon. It’s a film I respect, even though I found it very tough to sit through. That’s because Nichols creates a palpable sense of unease—which is exactly what he sets out to do.
Shannon, who’s so good playing creepy characters like the wacko in Revolutionary Road (which earned him an Oscar nomination), and the uptight Federal agent in Boardwalk Empire, is completely convincing here as an—
—ordinary construction worker in Ohio. He and his wife (Jessica Chastain) barely make ends meet, and face the challenge of raising a little girl who is deaf.
Nothing could prepare Shannon for the storm he encounters at the very beginning of the picture, where dark clouds gather overhead and the downpour that accompanies them leaves his skin wet—not with water, but with drops of oil. This instills in him a sense of foreboding, and with it the urgent desire to protect his family by expanding a long-abandoned storm shelter in their back yard. A series of vivid nightmares (or are they hallucinations?) only intensify his crackpot plan, which he neglects to discuss with his wife.
So is Shannon a candidate for the loony bin, or is he prescient? That’s what the film explores, with detail and nuance. The world Nichols creates for his characters is real and rock-solid; the relationships all make sense…but the filmmaker leaves it to us to form our own opinion of his protagonist.
I admire Take Shelter, which unfolds at a deliberately slow pace, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. The first-rate cast includes the versatile Chastain, Shea Whigham, and Katy Mixon, but it’s Shannon, as the haunted man, who dominates the movie and makes it memorable—and uncomfortable.