There is a conscious selection of wiping off the background score in certain scenes by director Jeff Nichols in “Take Shelter”. The scenes wherein in any other film would be accompanied at least by a slight mellow background score. Granted that it aids in the way it is executed but in “Take Shelter”, the absence of it casts the reality and the gravity. It truly unsettles its viewers. That moment becomes all of a sudden a documentary and that shivers its viewers.
Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” is a mastery in the constant undertone of fear but its underlying agenda is something beyond bringing paranoia alone to its viewers. Curtis is played Michael Shannon, an actor in his mere presence has a stillness and a sliver of sublime terror. Yet when he works with his friend Dewart (Shea Wingham) and shares a beer after and when he learns sign language along with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and communicates with their daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who is deaf, he epitomes a content man with a happy family. In this comes these dreams. For a long time in the film he never says it is a nightmare rather only as dreams.
The dreams of his begins with a storm often accompanied by a rain resembling motor oil. People terrorize him and things gets levitated. All of this are not the common fodder of factorized and uninspiring terrors the genre of horror films are spitting out these days. When Curtis wakes up gasping for breath, the raw nature of his body’s reaction tells how much real it felt for him. As anyone he does not make much of it in the first go. He sheds off and goes on his business of working at construction along with his buddy. He sits and sees her daughter play while eating breakfast. Then it happens again and the pain he inflicted in the dream continues during the day. He gets concerned.
Despite these he does not share it with his wife. Samantha is kept in the dark while she begins planning lunches and dinners. Slowly and surely Curtis begins to act on his dreams. It begins small and ends up building a huge storm shelter. He tries to get help but with the locality he is in, all he gets is a counselor. He knows the absurdity of it but cannot discard those. Mind is a powerful manipulator. He is afraid for his family both on the possibility of his mental health affecting them and his deadly apocalyptic storm becoming flesh and blood wiping them off. The dreams of Michael Shannon’s Curtis are vivid. It is more than vivid. It is visceral.
As Curtis drives himself into this paranoia and madness, the life that was witnessed at the beginning of the film seem to be a distant past strung by a loose thread. The locality is midwest and that is the detail one needs to know as these places are prone to severe storms and tornado. Hence the fear of Curtis becomes all the more plausible. The small town the film happens also limits the capability of Curtis getting professional help without traveling to nearby city. His helplessness edges over as the film moves along.
Jeff Nichols’ directorial debut “Shotgun Stories” was a film that marches on the constant threat of something extremely horrific is about to happen without the violence. The violence in that film existed in the actors and their hate in their eyes. In “Take Shelter”, Michael Shannon (who was the lead in “Shotgun Stories”) embodies the man in the midst of something unexplainable while indispensable to the mind. He shows that suffering and turmoil simply by the way he moves. There are three to four shots of him in the breakfast table as his fear and paranoia increases. In each of those, the differences are subtle but it speaks volumes as he descends into depression. He translates the man’s progression into this inescapable situation with realistic simplicity.
“Take Shelter” poses to be on the mind playing terrible things on a person and how the imminent danger of the world we live can make it as plausible. As layers peel, it reveals to be about the relationship between Samantha and Curtis. As one wonders on why Curtis is not honest with his wife on these, it is obvious on the reaction and judgment he would get explaining this. Yet when she does come to know, the film changes and the it welcomes Jessica Chastain to prove why she is a capable actor to watch for and has proven since. But this film belongs to Michael Shannon and the brilliance of Jeff Nichols. It is a slow burn and culminates into an emotional payoff that is far more than a manipulation. And just when you thought you have seen the pinnacle, the director leaves you wondering in the end. The key though is to not question it but to understand the state of characters at that instant. That will be more powerful than the storm Curtis dreams about.