Nichols’ film presents psychological terror


Take Shelter, the sophomore film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose previous film, Shotgun Stories, also starred Michael Shannon, is a dark psychological tale of Middle America and paranoia in a modern world.

Prophetic phantasmagoria · The main character of Take Shelter, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), is cursed with intense, prescient dreams that drive the film’s storyline, making the narrative a slow-burning psychological thriller grounded in a sense of tweaked realism. - Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Take Shelter is an immensely intimate character-driven film, despite its larger critique of a nation and world fraught with economic and ecological uncertainty.

The film follows Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a man from Ohio with intense dreams about an oncoming storm of such magnitude that it drives people and animals to go mad and violently attack him and his family.

At the start of the film, Curtis has a decent life. His best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) even tells him so. Despite the fact that his daughter is deaf and he and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) must cope with her condition, they are depicted as loving parents, dealing with the situation as best as they can.

LaForche’s new-found visions, however, start to infect his family life, challenging its previously comfortable situation.

“Anxiety is born out of having something to lose,” Nichols said.

Nichols displays this mantra in vivid realism on screen. Curtis’ real fear is not the disturbing forces revealed in his visions, as much as the idea of abandoning or losing his family.

Still, Curtis is torn between his all-too-vivid visions and the possible reality that he might simply be succumbing to the disease that also took over his mother’s life — schizophrenia. Shannon plays this confusion beautifully and subtly. The slightest tweak of expression on his face speaks myriad emotions.

Shannon’s power comes from his ability to express so much while appearing to do so little. This also, however, gives the moments when he erupts with emotion even more resonance. They stand in stark contrast to his normal state of being. Shannon’s nuanced portrayal of Curtis’ dry, sarcastic sense of humor also helps bring a lighter side to the character and reinforces what made the pre-psychosis Curtis loveable to begin with.

Curtis’ actions are also greatly contradictory. Often, his actions, which he hides from his wife, are driven by his irrational paranoiac fears. He tries extremely hard to hold on to his normalcy, to his decent life, but it’s slipping away and he can’t seem to control it.

His dreams end up leading to the deterioration of most of his closest relationships. He dreams almost everyone he loves turns against him and he seems incapable of forgiving them in reality for what they did in his nightmares. Just as it is difficult for Curtis to separate the two worlds, it too becomes difficult for the viewer at the end of the movie.

The film’s visual effects team, Hydraulx, has worked on films of massive scale such as Avatar, 2012 and Green Lantern, but here the visuals aren’t over-the-top. The effects are simple but effective in their horror. They are never mere spectacle, but instead service the plot and its characters. They are the manifestation of Curtis’ paranoia, something affecting his life in a very real way.

The film, after all, is in many ways a horror film of the Polanski variety. A slow-burning psychological thriller grounded in realism, but ever so slightly off, where the head-space of the main character is paramount.

Polanski is the master of making seemingly mundane events become riddled with intriguing tension. Nichols employs the same tactic with this film.

It’s telling that what might be the creepiest scene in the film is a sequence in which almost nothing happens. Curtis dreams his wife is drenched with water, standing very still in the kitchen. She slowly turns to stare at him. Her eyes then spot a kitchen knife on the counter.

Such simplicity and restraint are why the film works — the unnerving quiet of scenes such as this helps set up other shatteringly loud, bombastic moments. You get the sense as you’re watching the film that it’s slowly and quietly building to something massive, to an explosion.

To top it off, the film is beautifully shot, especially in the way the various storms are framed around the characters viewing them. The storm shelter itself is also noteworthy for its incredible ambiance: a hybrid of a horror movie basement and a World War II bomb shelter, complete with gas masks.

Take Shelter ultimately forces the viewer to question Curtis’ objective reality. The line between dream and truth becomes blurred as elements from one start to bleed into the other. It will force you to reconsider everything you think you’ve just seen. Is Curtis a victim of an uncontrollable storm or some sort of mad prophet?

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  1. […] Take Shelter ultimately forces the viewer to question Curtis’ objective reality. The line between dream and truth becomes blurred as elements from one start to bleed into the other. It will force you to reconsider everything you think you’ve just seen. Is Curtis a victim of an uncontrollable storm or some sort of mad prophet? by Sarah French via Daily Trojan […]

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