A family man is plagued by escalating visions of storms and violence, loss of control and having his family turn on him. Are they premonitions of a forthcoming apocalypse, symptoms of his mental illness, or is it all little more than a storm in a teacup? “You got a good life, Curtis,” he is told, “That’s the biggest compliment you can give a man,” yet birds swarm in the air like madness.
Michael Shannon’s Curtis is not a hero, just an ordinary man trying to carry on when the world falls away. Adjusting to a young daughter awaiting a cochlear implant and relying on the insurance policy provided by his construction job to pay for it, he can ill afford financial instability.
The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain hasn’t put a single foot wrong in any of her high profile performances this year, and she is excellent as Samantha, trying to hold her family together as her husband drifts from her. Shannon is no stranger to weirdness, having taken the lead in Werner Herzog/David Lynch collaboration My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, but despite the skewed path that film trod, it had direction; Take Shelter is two desperate characters in search of a plot and while their extraordinary performances carry the build up, the event that Curtis has presaged never within the body of the film.
A modest budget is balanced by the scenery, with the sky wide open over a big country, and with effects from Colin and Greg Strause, the team behind Alien vs Predator: Requiem and Skyline, the premonitions are convincing, but while undeniably well-made and acted, the lack of narrative progression or resolution mean Take Shelter is never more than an exercise in technique, and at two hours, an indulgent one.
The boon and bane of modern cinema are the same: digital filming. Removing the cost of film stock, processing and manual editing has created easy access to professional quality film equipment, and allowed many who could previously not have hoped to enter the industry a foothold, but desire and technical competence are not sufficient. Superfluous scenes drag on long past where they should have ended, as though the film thinks it can only be taken seriously if it has a serious running time.
Many of the ideas and images that are touched upon are never developed. Big brother Kyle tells Curtis not to put anything on credit cards; is the coming storm a financial apocalypse? Certainly that would represent the current American mind-set, but the idea is never expanded on. The failure of psychiatry to treat either Curtis or his mother’s illness could be seen as emulating Scientology, and along with the flood myth, the prophet who is not believed is a common theme in religion, but Curtis is indifferent to belief.
There was a time when a writer/director would have so much to say about their life and their place in the world, they could scarcely hold back the words; instead, there is silence in this film between all the characters, which often feels like a space where meaningful dialogue would offer more than meaningful looks. For all his obvious skill, director Jeff Nichols would perhaps be better to work with the script of another writer in future.