2011 // USA // Jeff Nichols // October 28, 2011 // Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
Jeff Nichols’s riveting new film, Take Shelter, is perhaps the most frightening work of cinema I’ve seen this year, and unquestionably the best new horror film to land in theaters since Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Nichols’ film boasts vivid nightmare sequences and a bit of computer-generated creepiness, but its boogeymen are predominantly creatures of the mind, and therefore all the more plausible and terrifying. Fundamentally, Take Shelter is a film about the deforming qualities of dread itself, and about how it can devour a mind and all the lives that surround it. The fact that the mind in question is perfectly, horribly aware that this all-consuming dread is absurd… well, that just makes the disintegration all the more disturbing.
Curtis (the ever-enthralling Michael Shannon) is a geological driller in rural Ohio, blessed with a lovely, forthright wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a sweet young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), whose deafness has only nurtured her parents’ devotion. Their life is simple but gratifying, the kind of existence that Curtis’ partner and friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham), will readily admit to envying once he has a few Friday night beers in him. Curtis, however, has begun to have distressing nightmares about an approaching thunderstorm, a storm that is somehow Different and Wrong. In addition to spawning fierce tornados, this storm unleashes a dark, thick rain resembling motor oil, and drives humans and animals alike to homicidal madness. Confronted with such harrowing visions, Curtis becomes distracted during his waking hours, and increasingly mystified by the omens that he sees in flocks of birds and arcs of lightning. Quietly, he begins to prepare for the apocalyptic storm that haunts his dreams. Frightened and embarrassed in equal measure, he conceals these preparations from his family and friends for as long as possible, while taking steps to evaluate his sanity.
Take Shelter functions chiefly as a character study of a splintering mind, a study presented from its protagonist’s unreliable perspective. It isn’t the first film to utilize this approach, of course. Just last year, Black Swan offered a similar first-person view of a mind losing its grip on reality, a mind trapped in a pitiless vice of rivalry and perfectionism. In contrast, Curtis gives every appearance of being an easy-going family man with no unusual mental strains beyond those common to just about every working-class American household. Therein lies the strength of Nichols’ script, which trenchantly mines the ashen pits of our collective anxieties, be they economic, cultural, religious, medical, or environmental. Eventually, the film reveals that Curtis’ mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Although this provides a rationale for his sudden outbreak of apocalyptic visions, it doesn’t diminish the horror of his situation. Indeed, it only serves to heighten Curtis’ most pragmatic fear: That he is hurtling towards a genetic destiny that will transform him from a provider into a shameful burden on his family.
What makes Take Shelter distinctive from previous films about the terror of mental illness is the resounding self-awareness of its protagonist. Curtis understands that his predicament is psychiatric in nature, and yet he is unable to stop planning for the unnatural threat he perceives on the horizon. He calmly (and secretly) takes out a loan to pay for the construction of an elaborate tornado shelter, even as his rational mind screams, “This. Is. CRAZY.” Shannon conveys this contradiction marvelously, providing an anguished and largely shuttered portrait. (When Curtis does finally explode with terror and fury, Shannon plays it utterly unhinged.) Curtis is a man caught between two distinct kinds of dread. On the one hand is the fear of the loss of identity, the terror that one’s own mind has a frantic life of its own that cannot be denied. Then there is the fear of an overwhelming threat that will tear apart the world, a fear that Nichols presents with startling acuity, while never forgetting that it is essentially chimerical.
The filmmaker’s effortless evocation of the rural Heartland setting is crucial, just as it was in his debut feature, Shotgun Stories, a rattling tale of Biblical retribution in the archetypal Shitty Little Town. In Take Shelter, the setting provides a credible, willfully prosaic substrate for Curtis’ dissolution. The film presents a rare reverse-shot examination of the proverbial Ordinary Guy who just snaps. Nichols’ film proffers that no one “just snaps.” True, Curtis is caught in a whirlwind that begins with his unlucky birthright. However, that whirlwind is fueled by his dumb Midwestern pride and a series of increasingly faulty decisions, each hastily made in the shadow of his waxing terror.
The film’s treatment of fearful conviction and looming Armageddon recalls several exceptional forebears, including Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, Todd Haynes’ Safe, and Bill Paxton’s Frailty. It shares with those films the phenomenon of “paradigm isolation,” wherein the protagonist is the lonely steward of a fearful, disruptive worldview. Of course, the psychological character of Take Shelter’s central conflict does not lessen the creepshow potency of the film’s nightmare sequences. Those are pants-shitting scary in their own right. The vividness of Take Shelter’s spine-tingling apocalyptic horror is one of the reasons its more down-to-earth chills of eroding sanity are so effective. There is little doubt that Curtis’ nightmares are the progeny of a malfunctioning mind, but those visions are so unsettling that they render his situation all the more pitiable.
Indeed, the film that Take Shelter brings to mind most readily is Night of the Living Dead, as it shares with that film a fear of a destructive reordering of the world into something unrecognizable and savage. Supernatural and science-fiction horror films such as Living Dead embody common human fears within literal monsters, but Nichols’ film seals its monsters within the mind of the hapless Curtis. This is cold comfort to the viewer, who sees what Curtis sees and feels his fear just as acutely as he does. In one of the most memorable shots in any film in recent memory, Nichols summons icy, stomach-flopping terror from little but a character’s slow, dead-eyed half-turn towards a kitchen knife. Cinematic moments don't come much more elemental than that.