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Written and Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart

At the centre of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is the stress of Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) past, and his anxiety towards the future. He is being haunted by visions or dreams that each start with the beginning of an abnormal storm involving thick brown rain, and which ends with a person or people driven to madness and putting Curtis or his family in danger. His dreams are so vivid that their effects are leaking into his waking life, and though he knows he’s being irrational Curtis begins to prepare a storm shelter for the storm he keeps dreaming about. Wrapped up in all of Curtis’ dreams are issues of fatherhood, manliness, pride, fear and embarassment. Director Jeff Nichols is incredibly patient in his observation of the struggle between Curtis’ drive to protect his family and his fear of impending insanity.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis with the intensity befitting  a man who is desperately trying to keep his mind from stripping away. Curtis has a great life; he has a good job, with a supportive best friend, a beautiful and kind wife, and an adorable deaf daughter. This family seems to have been living at their home for some time, so why is it only now that Curtis is drawn to the bomb shelter, why now has his family’s safety become such a threatened object? He is nearing the age his mother was when she was institutionalized for paranoid   schizophrenia and I suspect the fear that the same may happen to him and he’ll lose the ability to provide for his family acts as a catalyst  for his nightmares and crumbling sanity. The storm Curtis is sensing is his own mental deterioration and the shelter is about protecting them from having to deal with the burden he’s afraid he’ll become. It’s painful to watch as Curtis knows that to be so afraid of such an irrational thing is mad, as he deals with the embarassment of his erratic behaviour born of a need to keep a calm appearance for his wife and child. Michael Shannon is incredible as he plays this man burning up from the inside with terror and urgency, fighting to keep that fear hidden. This is a captivating internal struggle, confused by a brilliantly ambiguous ending.

This year, Jessica Chastain has had a career explosion second only to that of Michael Fassbender. In Tree of Life she played the beautiful, tender mother and although the role was not particularly demanding she gave an excellent performance. In The Help she did the best should could with an awful role as a bimbo housewife, a role for which she was inexplicably nomanted for an Oscar. I hear she is also outstanding in a role in The Debt, which I have not yet seen. In Take Shelter she plays the beautiful, joyful and loving Samantha who has to watch as her husband falls apart without giving her any indication of why. Samantha has the excruciating  task of having to soften the blow of Curtis’ incomprehensible behaviour so that he doesn’t scare their daughter, all while she is terrified herself. Chastain plays this character just so well, and both the love and the fear that pours from her is so genuine. Together, Shannon and Chastain construct such a beliavable pair, and the panic that moves between them is astonishingly organic.

Nichols, whose impressive Shotgun Stories first brought Michael shannon to my attention, directs Take Shelter with patience and subtlety. He forces nothing on the viewer, but the intensity of Curtis’ dream sequences puts the viewer on tenterhooks throughout. So easily, this film could’ve antagonized Curtis and been just another film in which a father figure becomes a family villain, but instead Nichols treats Curtis with nothing but tenderness, and his struggle is painful instead of scary. This is one of a few films this year in which a main character’s anxiety and/or self-hate has been manifested as a natural phenomenon, but is the only one that does not really bother to root itself in science fiction (not really).

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