Link to a formal review at the end here.
Jeff Nichols has now, by my count, started his filmmaking career off with two incredible films – Shotgun Stories in 2007 and now Take Shelter in 2011. When I saw Contagion earlier this year I thought it was the scariest film I’d seen in some time. Chalk Take Shelter up alongside it.
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are, of course, awesome, and so is the criminally underrated Shea Wigham. Quick plot: Shannon plays Curtis. He has frightening dreams. His family is struggling financially, especially with an upcoming cochlear implant surgery for his daughter. The dreams turn to nightmares and start to take over his life. He has a history of paranoid schizophrenia in his family. Is this his mental deterioration, or is he really foreseeing something wicked this way coming?
I blogged about the usefulness of dream sequences in an earlier entry on Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, and I mention them again in the review below, so I want to talk about other things in Take Shelter. For one, the sound editing:
Nichols does a really great job of connecting almost all of the opening scenes with an often-abrasive sound. Thunder becomes a motor, for example. These audio bridges connect fantasy to reality (and vice versa) early on, so later, when it becomes less clear what is real and what is not, we already have a groundwork in place for the possibility of both being from the same world.
There’s also a shot in here that is so simple, but struck me as so perfect. Curtis is asleep. He’s dreaming that he’s out in his backyard and watching a deadly storm heading his way. Behind him his dog barks uncontrollably. Suddenly the dog breaks off the leash and attacks Curtis, biting on his arm.
The next shot is of Curtis at the breakfast table. Nichols places his camera on the table. In the foreground is Curtis’ food, just behind that compositionally is Curtis’ right forearm, which he rubs with his left hand. The shot doesn’t move, and I’d call it a medium close-up. Whether this was an editing decision or pre-conceived is immaterial here. My instinct, without a doubt, would have been to initially cut to Curtis’ face so we could see his reaction to being pulled from the dream world and into a tame reality, maybe so we could see him look down at his arm. By starting at the arm Nichols again keeps us – though in “reality” – in that dream, just for a few seconds longer. We aren’t yet allowed to identify with “non-dream” Curtis…until we do get the cut to his face. As with the aforementioned sound editing, the purpose here is, or at least becomes, clear: blend the two worlds together.
There’s an absolutely spellbinding moment in Take Shelter, which is when Curtis finally blows up. He’s at a dinner for the local union and is confronted by Shea Wigham’s Dewart. The two men fight, culminating in Curtis kicking Dewart’s leg out from under him, sending the man to the ground. There’s a beat. Then Curtis throws a table over. His face becomes maniacal. And he screams, spits and spews at everyone in the room. He’s a maddened prophet, a doomsayer. It’s such an unbelievable scene. You can’t take your eyes off of Shannon. Best scene in the film for my money, and it’s made more powerful by the fact that, up until that point, Curtis’ struggle has been mostly internal. Even when he speaks with a counselor it’s quietly and matter-of-factly. This is the only true and full-scale blow-up in the film.