Michael Shannon is establishing himself as one of the best, and most in-demand, actors in Hollywood. In recent years he’s worked with directors like William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Oliver Stone, Sam Mendes, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, and received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Revolutionary Road. He seems to enjoy playing complicated, difficult characters, and as Curtis LaForche in Jeff Nicols’ Take Shelter he is certainly both of those things.
Curtis is a married man, with a young daughter. His job allows him to keep up with repayments on the house and for the family to have two cars, with the only complication in his life seeming to be the deafness of his daughter. But it is something that can be cured with an expensive operation, something the family is working on thanks to the generous medical insurance package his job offers.
But Curtis starts to have vivid, violent dreams that seem to portent a huge storm coming his way. One such dream involves Curtis being attacked by his dog, and he wakes up with a pain in his arm that lingers for hours. As the dreams haunt him, he starts to become obsessed with an old abandoned tornado shelter in his back garden. The dreams feel so real to him that he wants to protect his family, so much so that he takes out a loan to pay for it, without telling his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). As his obsession grows, his family and friends will feel the strain of his changing mental state, and with the dreams becoming more violent and disturbing, Curtis starts to question his own sanity.
If the plot sounds heavy, it certainly is. Take Shelter is certainly not a popcorn movie, and it has a slow, methodical feel to it. But it is driven by an astonishing performance from Shannon. It would be easy for him to play the role in an outlandish way, with lots of gesticulation and quirks, but Shannon’s performance is very subtle, with small differences in Curtis’ demeanour as he worries he is losing control. At the beginning of the movie he seems a quiet, reserved man, but as his life changes, so does his body language, with nervous tics and twitches growing and developing as the film goes on.
As Curtis’ behaviour becomes increasingly strange, his work colleagues and friends find it ever more difficult to deal with him. His work suffers and his wife doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Chastain has been everywhere in 2011, starring in five movies, including the Palme d’Or winner, Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life, and the hugely successful The Help. Here she gives a strong performance as a woman struggling to understand what is happening to her husband, but standing by her man.
But this is Shannon’s film, and if his performance doesn’t earn him an Oscar nomination, then the whole show is meaningless. There are other candidates for the Best Actor award, with Brad Pitt excellent in The Tree Of Life, and George Clooney gathering strong reviews for his performance in The Descendants, but Michael Shannon carries the movie on his back and delivers an incredible performance.
As for the film itself, there’s a sense of dread constantly building as it progresses. Curtis’ behaviour and mood seems to spread around the town, with a memorable scene coming at a dinner where most of the town will discover how fragile his state of mind is. Without spoiling anything, the finale is astonishing, a perfect conclusion to an extraordinary film.
Take Shelter is a must-see movie, and not just because of Shannon’s performance. It deserves to be seen by many, many people, but in the current climate of superheroes, comic book adaptations and 3D nonsense, it may be ignored. Don’t make the mistake of missing it, catch it while you can and you will be rewarded.