Film Review: Take Shelter (2011)

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Writing a post on Frailty last week got me thinking about crazy Southern fathers, and no one has been a better crazy Southern father as of recent than Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. A critical darling and a hit at film festivals, the film was ultimately too much of a genre picture to score any major U.S. prestige awards and it was too much of an art film to land on many Top Horror lists. After viewing the film, you can see why it languishes in this middle zone. Its narrative – about a father who begins having confusing apocalyptic visions – is straightforward, but the tone of the film slides back and forth between low-key domestic melodrama and outright horror in a way that can make it inaccessible to most critics. Such is a shame, because to a number of filmgoers (including myself), Take Shelter was one of the very best films of 2011.

Shannon plays Curtis, a working class father, eeking out a living with his wife and daughter. Curtis’s family live a pretty simple life – he does construction work, his wife does odd jobs to make extra money for family vacations and their daughter’s upcoming surgery, they go to local picnics and Lions Club dinners, they drink beers with their friends in the evening. It’s a good life, until Curtis begins to have horrific visions – oil raining from the skies, violent escaped lunatics coming for his family, masses of buzzing insects in the sky. Struggling to keep these issues under control, Curtis has to investigate a clinical world of psychology that makes little sense to him, as well confront his mother’s damaged past. Throughout the film, you will be guessing whether or not Curtis is crazy or prophetic, and what the stakes are either way.

To call the film a guessing game, is to undersell it though – or at least sell it the wrong way. Take Shelter is less about whether or not Curtis is psychotic and more about what it feels like to have your world spinning out of control and feeling like you have no way to stop it. The film finds its gravity less in its horrific moments than in the aftermath, as Curtis tries to hold his family life together, keep his job, keep his head, and keep the promises he’s made to his wife and child. Unlike a lot of straight horror films, our protagonist’s everyday life is put upfront instead of shuffled off to the side, making his shattering reality all the more heartbreaking. It’s the story of someone realizing their American Dream is dying before their very eyes, and every step they take to fix it is useless… or makes things infinitely worse.

A lot of the credit here has to go to the actors for selling this reality with such grounded performances. Michael Shannon has played crazy a lot between Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road, and William Friedkin’s 2006 horror adaptation Bug. The success here is Shannon actually putting a bottle on his brand of nutso in order to establish Curtis as a solid, stable family man before the cracks start to appear. You care about Curtis because he seems like a genuine dude, a family guy who cares about his kid, your cousin down south. It hurts to see him crack up. Just as good is Jessica Chastain as Samantha – already much lauded for her work last year in The Help, Tree of Life, and The Debt. And, despite the awards going elsewhere, this is her best work of 2011, breaking down as a mother trying to hold her family together in the face of such trauma.

But the biggest hand should go to upcoming director Jeff Nichols (brother of Lucero singer Ben Nichols), who turns this basic tale into something that feels timely, both bigger and scarier than everyday life but somehow still so grounded and close to the heart. He’s stated the film is supposed to representative of the creeping dread he’s seen in the American state of mind lately, and you feel it. Admittedly, it’s not a film that offers up constant horror thrills, and the deliberate pacing might be too slow for some viewers. But if you have the patience for it, Take Shelter is a thriller like few others, a family drama fueled by the darkest of terrors, and a keen peak into the anxieties of the American home.

Rating: 4.75/5 ★★★★¾ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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