Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chris' #72: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Tova Stewart, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Release Date: September 30, 2011

IMDB Synopsis: Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

First Time
All right, the first CR5 Film Club Event to make my list! I believe it was me, Jeff, and John at the Art Mission Theater...right??

Why it's on the List
This was a late addition for me, but I do love the movie and I even own a DVD copy. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it did leave enough of an impression on me to include in my top 100. Jeff Nichols was also a bit of a CR5FC favorite; I believe we were all fans of the guy, and of this film in particular. Midnight Special is probably Nichols' greatest cinematic achievement to date, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Take Shelter.

At the surface, there's a lot of simplicity to the story; the plot can be summed up very easily and the setting and characters add a real cracker-barrel vibe. Nichols makes the most of the script, however, adding psychological complexity, thick tension, and horror elements. I would also argue that Nichols gets the most out of his budget as well; there's some impressive CGI in Take Shelter. Two CGI moments that really stick out are the product of Curtis LaForche's (Michael Shannon) dreams: 1) Curtis walks into his living room and suddenly all of the furniture is launched into the air and hangs there, as if gravity is lost. 2) Curtis walks into the street in front of his house and it starts "raining" dead birds. Curtis' dreams are all very intense nightmares, and Nichols does a fantastic job capturing the horror; it'd be interesting to see him in dabble in that genre in the future.

LaForche's nightmares are the result of two very realistic problems, a family history of paranoid schizophrenia and extreme weather. Curtis is also motivated by the desire to protect his family. One way or another, the audience can relate to the character; even if you're a climate change denier who doesn't understand mental disorders, you're still probably someone who wants to protect his/her family. Connecting with Curtis is key because the audience needs to be on his side, despite all of the reckless decisions that he makes. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), has been trying for years to schedule cochlear implant surgery for their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Luckily the health insurance benefits through Curtis' job allow the LaForche's to make this expensive procedure possible.

There is a lot on the line for Hannah. Samantha explains to her husband that, because Hannah is deaf, she's struggling to connect with the other kids in the neighborhood. With a communication barrier in place, Hannah chooses to isolate herself from her peers. Thanks to his nightmares, Curtis, too, begins to pull away from his friends and family. Red, the LaForche family dog, is given away to Curtis' brother; and after family friend and co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), harms him in a dream, Curtis asks his boss to give him a new partner at work. Samantha is also hurt by her husband's refusal to communicate honestly with her.

The marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is very believable. They fight and don't always listen to each other, but they have great chemistry, and when there is love, it's very sweet and genuine. I also appreciate the way Nichols wrote Chastain's character. Oftentimes, men will write wives who don't understand the motivations of their husbands as being very naggy and confrontational. Obviously there is some onus on the audience to realize that, if they were in the wife's position, they would react the same way, at best. Many Breaking Bad fans hate Skylar White, which is unfortunate and easy to do, since they don't get to be in her shoes. Samantha LaForche is a similar character in that she is forced to watch her husband put his life, their child's life, and her own life in uncompromising positions. When Curtis' actions cost him his job and long-term health care benefits, Samantha fights through her anger and frustration and comes up with a level-headed plan for how the family will make ends meet. Chastain is amazing in this film, and I really like her character.

Michael Shannon won many Critics Association awards for this performance, and rightfully so. There are many levels to Curtis, and Shannon breathes a lot of life into the role. There are subtle moments that he plays very well and then bigger, more emotional scenes that he's always been able to master. In terms of the subtle moments, I love when he walks down into the tornado shelter for the first time in the film. Even though the tornado shelter is on the LaForche family's land, he sort of stumbles upon it and walks down into it as if he was unaware of its existence. It's as if the shelter is his own manifestation. I also love the moment when Curtis walks into his counselor's office at a free clinic in town and discovers that his counselor, Kendra (Lisa Gay Hamilton) has moved on to another job at OSU. Curtis' new counselor essentially asks him to start from the beginning. You can really sense the anger, frustration, and betrayal in Curtis' eyes before he decides to get up and leave without saying a word.

Then there are the bigger, more emotional scenes. The Lion's Club dinner is very memorable and authentic--partly because the IMDB trivia reveals that all of extras in the scene has no idea what was about to happen. After Curtis and Dewart are punished for borrowing equipment from work without permission, Dewart confronts his former friend and co-worker and asks the LaForches to leave. The two get caught up in a physical altercation, and after that ends, Curtis begins to get in the faces of some of his neighbors. I have to imagine that some of those extras got goosebumps from Michael Shannon's intensity. This is Curtis at his lowest point in the film, and I pity him every time. I also get emotional every time I see Tova Stewart's face as she becomes afraid of her father's instability; it's heartbreaking.

The tornado shelter sequence at the end of the film is one of the more intense scenes that I've ever witnessed. Watching it in the theater was amazing; it was one of those moments where I took a second to think, "I can feel the silent captivation of everyone around me." I also remember thinking at the time that that sequence could make for a great episode of The Twilight Zone. I honestly wasn't sure what Nichols was going to do this moment--how dark was he going to go with this? At one point, I thought to myself, "Holy shit, is Curtis going to trap his family down there forever?" As Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah stand below the hatch of the shelter, Samantha pleads with her husband to let them out. In that moment, you fear for Sam and Hannah but you also feel bad for Curtis, since he feels so alone in this. Eventually, Curtis extends the key to his wife, but she demands that he open the door himself. "This is what it means to stay with us," she explains. Curtis now has a choice to make--crippling obsession or family.

On a more personal level, I can definitely relate to the struggle that Curtis goes through. Granted, I don't identify with the mental illness aspect to his story, but lately I've been feeling as if I am sabotaging my own relationships thanks to a newfound obsession. We've seen this in many films and TV shows before--the quality that exists in people to create drama when things are going well. Curtis chooses family in the end, and as a family, the LaForche's decide to get him some professional psychiatric treatment.

I have some mixed feelings on the very last scene. I really enjoy the shot of the storm being revealed in the reflection of the beach house windows. I also accept the fact that major storms like the one in the movie will probably be a reality someday, but I'm not sure that Curtis' obsession needed to be validated. At the same time, I like the message of, "We're completely fucked but at least we're together."

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is it for Jeff Nichols. Midnight Special definitely belongs in my top 200. I like Mud and Shotgun Stories but don't necessarily love them yet.
  • There is one more Michael Shannon movie on my list.
  • This is it for Jessica Chastain. She's one of the best actresses working today, and I enjoy her in everything I've seen her in.
  • This is it for Shea Whigham, and mostly I've just seen him on the small screen. He was very good on Boardwalk Empire and season 3 of Fargo.
  • Phenomenal job by Tova Stewart. This is the only movie credit to her name, and she probably doesn't care about acting, but she has a ton of talent.
On a personal note, as Jeff was in a state of upheaval a month ago, I, too, am about to encounter a big life change. I'm moving to Los Angeles to pursue writing and comedy. I'm sorry to say that we'll soon be running out of opportunities to hang and see movies together. But maybe after I become homeless in LA, I'll have Jeff pick me up and get me back in time so that the four of us can see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle together.


  1. Great write-up. Take Shelter didn't make my own 100, but it's definitely 101-200 material. It's on my current (unranked) Top 20 of the 21st Century List.

    As for the personal note, congratulations on committing to an important decision that could potentially wreck your entire life.


    Want to go see something together sometime next weekend, the 21-23?

    1. I should be arriving in Los Angeles on the 22nd. I'm driving out there, so I'll be leaving town on Wednesday morning. What's your today, Monday night, and Tuesday night look like?

    2. Should've arranged a hangout weeks ago, but definitely feeling overwhelmed by all of this.