“If you build it, they will come.” That was the iconic line from the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, a film about a man risking money and ridicule in order to build something out of an intense feeling of hope. Now suppose this character had visions that were less than hopeful, visions born out of an intense paranoia, out of a feeling that something was going to go terribly wrong and needed to be prepared for. That’s the premise of the new film from Jeff Nichols, the young director who gave us the low budget 2008 film Shotgun Stories. I was not a fan of Shotgun Stories, I thought it was a silly exploitation film masquerading as some kind of sophisticated piece of Southern Gothic, but the underlying filmmaking on display in that film was solid and could have been a force to be reckoned with if it were paired with material that was more worthy of Nichol’s apparent talent.
The film centers on Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) a road worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Hannah is deaf but may gain hearing through a cochlear implant surgery that the family is trying to save up for. That should be Curtis’ main priority but recently he’s been having strange and very intense apocalyptic dreams that have been affecting him to his core. Though he realizes that he could simply be losing his mind he still can’t shake a conviction that what he’s experiencing are premonition of something terrible that’s coming and he feels compelled to spend time and money expanding a tornado shelter in their back yard in order to save the family from this calamity.
The film is at its best when it’s depicting Curtis’ frightening dreams which feature strange happenings like brown rain falling from the sky, furniture floating mysteriously in the air, dogs attacking, and dead eyed zombie like people trying to attack the protagonist. We’re never really told what the cause or nature of this apocalypse is which makes it all the more mysterious and creepy and the way that these dreams are brought to life make a striking contrast for the realistic indie-film that surrounds them. The tense atmosphere does continue beyond the dream sequences however, and throughout the film the viewer is on edge about Curtis’ psychological state and what that is going to lead them to do. As worried as the viewer is about Curtis’ psychological state, there is a gnawing feeling in the background that he might be right, there really might be “a storm coming.” In this sense the film is slightly reminiscent of The Shining which also walked a line between psychological terror and genuinely supernatural material and had an ending which leaves just as much of a question mark on the proceedings.
That Michael Shannon was cast in the lead here should have been the first clue that Curtis’ psychological state was suspect. Michael Shannon is dangerously close to being typecast after having portrayed crazy people in films like Bug, World Trade Center, and Revolutionary Road and on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. This does make him ideal for this role and he’s also able to bring a sort of working class realism to the part as well. Shannon does look like he could be a road worker; if a movie star had been cast in the part rather than someone like Shannon it would have rung a lot less true. Jessica Chastain (who’s having a real breakout year) is also really good here as Curtis’ long suffering wife who’s trying to understand what’s going on with him while being simultaneously frustrated at what he’s doing.
Take Shelter is not a horror movie or even a thriller in the strictest sense of the word. It’s a drama about psychological uncertainty and about deep pessimism. I feel like it has a lot of relevance during these times in which people are highly anxious about their lives and livelihoods. It never quite emerges as a truly great film, but its very well made and captures the zeitgeist in interesting ways.
***1/2 out of Four