Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

I could try to go in depth on other elements of this film, but that would be a fool’s errand. This is a movie to be experienced, not described.


Take Shelter is a difficult film to describe. It is quite unlike anything that has been released recently, or possibly ever. The story is about a man who becomes convinced that a devastating storm of biblical proportions is about to strike his small town. He has visions of terrible things happening, and fears they will come true. He worries that he may be going crazy and begins to seek therapy, but at the same time, he builds a tornado shelter to prepare for the coming storm. In the process, his life begins to unravel. That’s the plot, but I’m not sure it actually describes the film.

For the majority of the first act, Take Shelter is a horror film, complete with jump scares and characters waking up from dream sequences. The imagery is apocalyptic and frightening; one scene even recalls a moment from Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Some of the jump scares feel cheap, and it seems like certain moments were inserted to keep the film from feeling slow. The horror is sloppy. Fortunately, the majority of the film is more of a toned-down drama with elements of a psychological thriller. The louder moments are replaced by a quiet sense of building dread, which is far more effective.

The drama works mostly as a result of the performances. Michael Shannon has been steadily gaining attention in recent years for his brave, unique performances. Some of his choices could be seen as over the top, but they always fit the role. In Take Shelter, he gives the best performance I’ve seen from him. He is absolutely magnetic, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. His wife is played by Jessica Chastain, who popped on the scene earlier this year with Tree of Life, and has had several major roles in the brief time since then. Here, she is absolutely fantastic as a wife who is constantly struggling not to give up on her husband. We can see each of their points of view, and neither of them is wrong. Both actors deserve awards consideration for their work.

I could try to go in depth on other elements of this film, but that would be a fool’s errand. This is a movie to be experienced, not described. I feel like no discussion of the film would be complete without going into detail on the climactic scenes, but for obvious reasons, I will avoid doing so. Suffice it to say that they are powerful, and the ending is as close to perfect as any ending I’ve seen this year. The entire film is a slow build, and the last scenes are very emotionally effective.

Take Shelter is the second film by director Jeff Nichols, whose previous film, Shotgun Stories, was one of the best debuts of recent years. His films are beautiful, and reminiscent of the works of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. Take Shelter is more flawed than Shotgun Stories, but the flaws are outweighed by sheer ambition. For a film that uses many tried and true cinematic tropes, it feels completely original. I get the sense it will stick with me, and reward on multiple viewings. It’s the kind of film that demands some extra work, which I am happy to do. This is what film fans live for. | Sean Lass

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