Intriguing story, exceptionally well-acted, first-rate craftsmanship with scene development and cinematography, a keen eye for direction, and yet… it blows it. Take Shelter is the work of a very talented young director named Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories” was his first film), and yet here he builds his entire story to a final scene that dissipates everything that came before it. Why would a director this talented want to f***-up his own film? Nevertheless, there might be reason enough to watch it even in the face of a collapsed conclusion. This outing proves once again that Michael Shannon (“Bug”) and Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) are among the most mysterious and captivating actors around. In a small Ohio town, Shannon is the husband who thinks that he might be turning crazy when he experiences first-ever hallucinations, accompanied with dreams of raging storms and violent killers. Chastain is the frustrated wife struggling to find patience with him while caring for their deaf daughter and straining to come up with supplemental income to support their meager living.
The sympathetic point of view is with Curtis (Shannon) for the entire film. It is revealed that his mother went crazy sometime in her mid-thirties when he was a boy and was thrown into institutionalized living. Now Curtis is afraid that he is developing paranoid schizophrenia just like his mother. He goes to doctors to get slipping pills in hopes to deal with horrendous dreams that evolve around an apocalyptic storm, men who will slay his daughter, his loyal dog who turns against him by chewing up his arm, and co-workers that angrily brawl. (I must say that the dream motif of motor oil is one detail that is brazenly gratuitous, a filmmaker’s unnecessary device of misdirecting his audience.) When Curtis wakes up, he finds a pool of urine in his bed and on another time has so whipped around so frenziedly in the bed that he has bitten into his cheek drawing excess blood.
Perhaps Curtis has had these dreams for a good reason. He begins to see them as a premonition that the storm of the century is on the way. He re-builds a larger storm shelter underneath his yard that will become the preparation for the mother of all disasters, just like Kevin Costner built a baseball field in “Field of Dreams” (1989) because a higher power made a calling. Because Curtis is the crew chief for his sand-mining company at work, he believes that he can get away with borrowing crane equipment on the weekend to use on this project. Samantha (Chastain) is in disbelief, in clutches of a marriage sated in unreliable communication, and fears for the safety of her daughter. Curtis and Samantha have a tearful talk, but then Curtis has another dream – a hazy but spooky one involving his wife this time.
The chilling grayness and seething ominous qualities of the dreams are very well imagined and directed by Nichols, although, it would have played right if it had continued in telling us if the dream with Curtis’ wife concluded with violence against Samantha or violence perpetrated by her. We are not quite sure if Curtis changes his sense of trust in his wife after these dreams. This loss of clarity does not specifically play into the final denouement of the film but it would have colored in some perspective for us.
Knowing that Curtis is either a burgeoning paranoid schizophrenic or an unsung prophet means a story like this can only end in one of two ways. Director Nichols has made the self-sabotaging mistake of the need to “wow” us by pulling the rug out from underneath us instead of trusting in what good he had. This is not “L’Avventura” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Blade Runner” or “No Country of Old Men” where ambiguity had us ruminating over the nature of mankind or symbolized the instability of the world around us. Since this is a character study Nichols should give us a clear answer that justifies his lead character. Nichols could have ended his film on a satisfying note two scenes earlier, and I would have then said freely, Watch this with my endorsement. But no, we get an ending that can be one way or another that ultimately is as good as saying neither, as if it doesn’t matter.
Although I can’t quite recommend it, I say that anybody that admires the acting prowess of the superlative Michael Shannon and the trappingly beautiful Jessica Chastain should see it anyway, even though they will get to a conclusion with mixed results. Nichols, I believe, has tremendous talent and has me in hopes that he will get his next feature right after he drops all the ironic posturing. I usually consider myself that has the power to re-write endings that I don’t like in my head of movies that just miss the mark. If you have that similar kind of power you might find enough in “Take Shelter” to admire yourself.
120 Minutes. Rated R.
TWISTED DRAMA / BRAINTEASER / STRANGE AND DISTURBING / FALL MOVIE / SATURDAY AFTERNOON MOVIE
Film Cousins: “Field of Dreams” (1989); “Bug” (2006); “Let the Right One In” (2008, Sweden); “Another Earth” (2011).