Whether it is a creepy neighbor in Revolutionary Road or a disturbed federal agent from Boardwalk Empire, Michael Shannon normally doesn’t snag family man roles. Re-teaming with director Jeff Nichols after his exquisite debut Shotgun Stories, Shannon is able to explore new territory playing Curtis LaForche, a caring father. Married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), the couple are raising a deaf daughter (Tova Stewart) in a small Ohio town. From the first scene, Shannon begins to have premonitions of impending natural disaster and other twisted chaos.
While one may throw this insane turn into the backlog of previous roles, Nichols is able to ground this paranoiac fear into something relatable. Shannon clearly loves his family and has the best intentions. His dreams increasingly become more frightening, with thanks from visual effects artists, the Strause Brothers, doing more subliminal work after last year’s disaster Skyline. The catalyst of these nightmares leads Shannon to construct a safe bunker aka “shelter,” to protect his family from this predicted impending doom.
Nichols hints at schizophrenia, like Curtis’ mother (Kathy Baker), or attempts to deal with his paranoia issues at a consultant/psychiatrist, but it is clear Shannon only has one goal on his mind; to preserve his family’s safety. This wouldn’t have been so effective without an exceptional performance from Chastain. As his wife, struggling with her husband’s motivations, she is able to convey the balance of love and longing for reconciliation. In a stand-out scene, Curtis hits his breaking point and explodes with frustration. In a mixture of expert writing and acting, instead of rejecting Curtis, Samantha stands by his side in support. It is these moments where Nichols’ elevates above his stand-out debut.
With the constant brooding drama unfolding (heightened by David Wingo‘s score) the slight negative comes with the repetitive nature of the script. There is just one too many scenes of Shannon portraying the same emotion. With a little tightening, this can easily be fixed before Sony Pictures Classics releases it later this year.
The gripping finale brings much discussion, and without revealing rampant spoilers, it is similar to one my favorite 2009 films. Nichols deserves much credit, as the latter film brought a sense of dread and uncertainty, while Take Shelter delivers unexpected happiness. While Chastain’s career is in the early stages (with Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life this summer) partnered with Shannon, the duo deliver some of the best performances to kick off 2011. Nichols has made an enthralling piece with global connotations extending far beyond this small-town character study.