Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a film for our paranoid, anything-could-happen, Harold Camping day and age. It’s a jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled days in which we live.
The film is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man (Michael Shannon) who simply wants to protect his wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and young daughter in rural Ohio. He worries about a lot: tornadoes, agressive pet dogs, acid rain, strangers breaking in to his house, car accidents, etc. And he begins to have vivid nightmares about each of these scenarios. Is he going crazy? He starts to see a therapist. Others begin to take notice of his peculiar behavior–especially the passion with which he goes about building a storm shelter in his backyard. But is he actually crazy or simply a responsible protector of his family? This is the film’s nagging question.
It’s become commonplace for films to raise critical questions about the “culture of fear” and its attendant problems, as if our fears are unjustified and mostly just harmful to the supposedly utopian status quo. But what if our fears are justified? What if doomsday is coming and there are good reasons to take shelter and hide? That is the provocative question this film–a hit at Sundance this January–is willing to ask.
Take Shelter is a fascinating film–an intimate family portrait on one hand and a surreal apocalyptic abstraction on the other (perhaps akin to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or, in a weird way, Malick’s Tree of Life). Like Jeff Nichols’ first film, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter is a film in which the tension slowly escalates and the expectation of violence builds and builds until explosive moments of release.
The 90% calm, 10% crazy performance of Michael Shannon is indicative of the tenor of the film at large. But Shannon’s remarkable performance is also reflective of the larger mood of America right now. Are we losing our minds? Have we given up hope? As a financially downtrodden family man in the rust belt, at wit’s end about how to thrive in a world gone mad, the only thing that makes sense to Shannon’s character is to dig a hole, hunker down, and hope there’s something left after the storms have all passed.