(Image via electricsheepmagazine.co.uk)
While a character drama at heart, those more pedantic among you could argue that Take Shelter is actually an incredible puzzle of a film. Curtis (played by Michael Shannon) is a mild-mannered family man who begins to have visions of a coming apocalypse; vivid hallucinations of storms of motor-oil rain and crazed neighbours. This premise hinges on the ‘is he or isn’t he crazy’ scenario and much of the tension in the film arises from the increasing disconnect Curtis experiences due to these visions. But writer/director Jeff Nichols often subverts our attention, instead drawing it to family and the strains Shannon’s erratic behaviour places on them. Curtis’ wife, Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain), underplays the tension by asking the burning logical questions that Curtis tends to ignore. It’s a wonderful dynamic that keeps you grounded in the realism of the whole experience; a dynamic that doesn’t let the premise get too wrapped up in itself. It’s about Curtis’ arc as a man: tortured by his instincts and driven to act in an increasingly irrational way. It evokes Noah’s Ark – a man, erred on by a higher power, is forced to prepare for a cataclysmic event. On a technical level, too, Take Shelter is a class act: beautiful sun-swept and intimate cinematography, incredible lead performances and a perfect score. It is an incredible example of Nichols’ talents: balancing human drama and narrative in the most affecting way possible. Seek it out.
Up until the film’s conclusion, Curtis’ visions are justified: the references to his family history of mental illness are used to explain the nature of his fractured state of mind. But the end of the film essentially validates Curtis’ hallucinations as being prophetic. As a plot device, it’s really a happy ending: Curtis isn’t a paranoid schizophrenic after all.
Instead, the world is coming to an end in a series of biblical storms. Or is going to be overrun by crazed and violent lunatics. Or both? Probably both.
Any discussion about the details of this coming apocalypse is trivial, as the film is much more about the emotional connect of its characters. The kind of pedantic discussion I’m about to delve you into will definitely cheapen my preamble, but hell, Nichols serves up some irresistibly intriguing clues. As with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there’s the feeling that there are answers to film’s mysteries within.
For example, the case could be made (pretty strongly) that the lunatics have zombie origins (sorry) of sorts. Apart from the dream of them attacking his car or trying to break into his house, the most glaring clue you’ll find is the scene in which Curtis and Samantha are watching a news report on TV. The report details a horrific chlorine spill killing an entire family, save Walter Jacobs, who ends up spending 11 hours consumed in a poisonous cloud of gas. Run-of-the-mill zombie virus outbreak scenario?
More questions arise from the nature of the soothsaying itself. Does the fact that Curtis takes measures to prevent his visions from coming true actually affect their outcome? Take the vision of the mauling, for example. Curtis goes on to give the dog away to his brother, Kyle, thus preventing the mauling from taking place in future. Most impacting would be the sequence of Samantha, sopping wet in the kitchen, reaching for a knife. Presumably Curtis is stabbed? Or having had this vision, hides all the knives in the house and buys his wife a raincoat? The discussion gets a little bit Back to the Future/Groundhog Day here, so maybe we’ll just leave it there.
How the two disparate apocalyptic events (storms vs zombies) tie into one another is really the most pertinent question and, funnily enough, the one that has no answer.
In any case, with Take Shelter and the just-short-of-perfect Mud under his belt - Nichols has proven he’s a talent to flock to.