August 18, 2019

Review: Jeff Nichols’s ‘Take Shelter’

“There’s a storm a-coming”, yells Curtis (Academy Award nominated Michael Shannon) with the visceral power of a Southern baptist preacher, “and none of you are prepared for it!” Churchgoers tremble in their chairs. He breaks down in tears. His wife rushes to comfort him.

“Take Shelter”  is a moving, haunting and powerful piece of cinema, one of the best I’ve seen all year. It’s two  hours long and, while the length is noticeable, the plot is so absorbing and rewarding that it doesn’t matter.

“Take Shelter” begins with Curtis standing outside his home, watching brown rain fall into his hands. This was, it is revealed, a dream. Curtis has begun to be haunted by them; dreams of horrific, apocalyptic storms which threaten his family, his home, and his whole way of life. As the film progresses, and as Curtis becomes more and more convinced his dreams are, in fact, premonitions, his behaviour degenerates into that of a deluded madman; alienating his friends and terrifying his wife.

The film relies heavily on the ambiguity of Curtis’s condition. On the one hand, it is heavily suggested that he is suffering from a form of paranoid-schizophrenia, complete with auditory hallucinations and delusions. This hypotheses is enforced when it is revealed that Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with the affliction, and had to be hospitalised. But on the other hand, the film masterfully always manages to keep the ambiguity there – the classical idea that the mad might be seeing things as they really are.

This is where “Take Shelter” is strongest, and what makes it such a powerfully moving film – its depiction of the mentally ill. Where “A Beautiful Mind” was overacted, and “Black Swan” was over stylised, “Take Shelter” depicts the loneliness of mental illness like no film I’ve seen before. As the audience silently begs Curtis to share his torment with those he alienates, he closes off into silent desperation and misery, unable to express the horrors his mind is subjecting him to. He eventually does break down in public, at a meeting of churchgoers, and we bear witness to the eternal tragedy of watching a grown man, strong and silent, break down, weeping, in public.

Another aspect of the mental illness theme of “Take Shelter” is the sheer scariness of it. Curtis’s dreams remind us how terrifying Schizophrenia must be, haunted as they are by ghoulish madmen and menacing tornadoes. And, as Curtis descends into insanity, and his character becomes more and more erratic, we begin to fear for his family’s safety.

“Take shelter” is a phenomenal film. Its cinematography is beautiful, the soundtrack superb, and the acting moving and touching. Michael Shannon delivers the performance of his career, and Jessica Chastain is compelling as the wife who is sympathetic yet infuriated by her husband’s behaviour. You’d be hard pressed to find a film which so powerfully combined mystery, suspense, and drama. You’ll leave the cinema shaken, and disturbed, but “Take Shelter” is worth it.

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