Take Shelter is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and despite a slow pace its moody atmosphere and eerie realism make this apocalyptic drama stand out from the crowd. Not only are the visuals understated but powerful, the movie score creeps under your skin and adds another level of depth to what is essentially a very human story.
With only one screening at Austin’s genre film festival Fantastic Fest, tickets into Take Shelter were hard to come by this week at the festivities. The buzz and excitement were not for nothing, as this film has snagged my top FF movie spot do to some stellar story-telling and superb acting, not to mention a creeping drama that becomes apocalyptic in scope.
Michael Shannon gives, as usual, a nuanced performance as a humble working-class guy named Curtis dealing with the typical issues of life. He’s a genuine, soft-spoken man who loves his wife Samantha and deaf daughter more than anything in the world.
One night he has a disturbing dream about a coming apocalyptic storm. Then he has another, and another, and soon he is seeking medical help for what he suspects might be madness. But even through his fears and suspicions, he answers the strange call of his dreams and begins to build up the storm shelter in his backyard and prepare for something bad.
The movie guides the audience through what looks like a simple case of a man losing his mind. But the honesty of the characters, as well as the unnerving simplicity of the story, builds into a thrilling cinematic feat that doesn’t have to rely on block-buster images or empty sound and fury.
Jessica Chastain plays the wife Samantha with some amazing intensity. Both she and Shannon had to rely on a very subtle drama in their performances to communicate the growing tension between a gentle couple.
What struck me as interesting, given the simplicity of the story and the ambiguity through much of it as to Curtis’ sanity, is that his character is almost written as a kind of prophet. Like traditional Biblical prophets, Curtis is of humble origins, lacks a formal education, and as a character he is just a gentle, honest do-gooder. He doesn’t go around prophesying about the end of the world per se, though he does at one point warn people that something’s coming.
Jeff Nichols, a fairly un-tried director with only two feature films under his belt now, brought this apocalyptic tale with a laudable subtlety. It’s just the quiet, eerie scenes and open camera shots that go so far to build mood. It’s the mood, or atmosphere, that drives this film. Shannon has plenty of slow shots looking up into the sky, and some great scene composition and the use of extreme close-ups add to a growing feeling of paranoia.
The musical score must be mentioned, as it went far to build atmosphere in a film full of silent scenes and soft dialogue. The orchestral music added to the growing scope of the story as it unfolded, though it wasn’t overused. In fact, as I mentioned, this is a very quiet film that relies on silence, and the silence becomes a tool of the soundtrack as effective as the music.
Lucky for cinephiles everywhere, Take Shelter is getting a limited release on September 30th. This movie is an intellectual and dramatic look at a man with a calling, and Shannon’s performance alone is a reason to see it. The eerie and slow-building tension make it a successful drama, and the well-told story make it a thrilling must-see.