Wages of fear explored in terrifying, yet insubstantial ‘Take Shelter’
No one will deny that ours is a culture saturated with fear, from the bomb shelters and duck-and-cover drills of the ’50s through the anti-anthrax duct tape follies of a few years ago, and on to the airline security checks of the present day. Every time you pick up the phone or turn on the radio, someone is trying to sell you a “home protection” plan or a CO2 monitor, or some other security device.In Take Shelter, filmmaker Jeff Nichols taps into this potent zeitgeist of fear. It’s the story of a suburban young husband and father with a solid, happy life who’s gradually crippled by his mounting terror of—well, whatever it is that’s out there. Nichols leaves the details up to the viewer’s imagination as he limns an often striking, at times agonizing portrait of the effects of rampaging fear on one man, and the ripple effect it has on his family, loved ones, and community. Unfortunately, Nichols’ ideas start to run out of steam before the film reaches its conclusion, while, ironically, the finale itself might leave viewers craving something a little more substantial.
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) delivers another impressive performance at the center of Nichols’ carefully constructed maelstrom of foreboding. Shannon plays Curtis, a foreman with a small-town Ohio construction company. He shares a comfy suburban home with his pretty and loving wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain), their spunky little deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), with whom they communicate via ASL, and the family dog. Curtis’ good life is the envy of his friends and co-workers.
But the nightly news is full of paranoia-inducing horror stories of mining disasters and chlorine spills. Soon, Curtis is hearing ferocious thunder cracks when the sky is perfectly clear. He starts having apocalyptic visions of oily brown rain, lightning bolts exploding across the sky like fireworks, ominous swarms of birds creating gigantic, swirling Rorschach patterns in the sky, or dead crows raining down from above. Even worse are nightmares that hit Curtis (and the viewer) on a terrifyingly visceral level because they start out so real.
Nichols is very effective in seeding these dream sequences seamlessly into the texture of the narrative, so the audience, like Curtis, is always a little off-kilter about what may or may not really be happening. Curtis tries to cope by reading up on mental illness. (We see why when he goes to visit his mom—an understated Kathy Baker—in assisted living.) But he can’t shake the irrational panic that grips him day and night, affecting his job and his marriage. Falling behind in his other obligations, he fences in the dog, buys gas masks, and takes out a risky loan against his mortgage to renovate and provision the old underground storm shelter in his back yard.
There are two ways one might interpret Nichols’ unfolding story. Either the pervasive culture of fear in this country is all in our heads (and we need to get a grip), or it’s a mass premonition of something truly dire to come. (“I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right,” is the closest Curtis can come to articulating his feelings to his wife.) The film seems willing to support either thesis (or both) depending on how one reads it.
But the trouble is, beyond the impending sense of all-purpose dread ratcheted up to fever pitch a half-hour into the movie, or so (Don’t go to sleep! Don’t get in the car! Don’t get too close to that equipment!), the viewer doesn’t really experience whatever the movie is saying on any profound level. Nichols generates plenty of tension and anxiety for its own sake, but that’s not the same thing as telling a coherent, affecting story. He does succeed in replicating the suffocating panic of non-stop fear, but the film as a whole amounts to little more than an exercise in metaphor, told with the eerie sensibilities of a horror movie, a premise in search of a story.
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 120 minutes.