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We've all had those dreams that are so intense and compelling we can't shake them even hours after we wake. We've all been convinced of something that seemed a little crazy, but also so real we couldn't ignore it. But when do strange impulses and fears and drives turn into something darker, scarier, endangering your loved ones and earning you a diagnosis and a room in a facility? And what if, despite all the evidence, you turn out to be right?
Take Shelter, the title of the new, deeply unsettling film from Jeff Nichols, is the command given to its main character Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue-collar family man who at first displays none of the coiled intensity we're used to seeing in Shannon's characters. He's a provider to his wife (Jessica Chastain) and a loving father to their deaf daughter (Tova Stewart) but not a particularly forceful or dynamic presence in his life; all the drama in him is contained to his dreams, which lately have been skewing apocalyptic and terrifying, including visions of tornadoes churning up the nearby farmland or faceless strangers abducting his child. He's disturbed by them as anyone would be, but with an added layer of terror thanks to his mother, a paranoid schizophrenic confined to a home since Curtis was a child. The only solution, as he sees it, is to fortify the tornado shelter in his backyard, spending thousands of dollars they don't have and completely alienating his worried wife.
Nichols unfolds his story and Curtis's gradual unraveling with meticulous, slooooow care. A whole hour goes by before Curtis's wife confronts him about his erratic behavior, and the full scope of his growing paranoia only becomes clear in the final half hour. The languid pace of Take Shelter is maddening at times, waiting for the shoe, any shoe, to drop, or for the promises of natural disaster to actually come true. But looking back through the film it's hard to imagine what to cut. Shannon possesses the frame with such confidence and escalating pain, and makes Curtis fall apart in such slow, imperceptible explosions that it's riveting just to see what happens next. Chastain's Samantha takes longer to develop, but by the final act of the film Take Shelter is a powerful two-hander between the two of them, husband and wife trying their hardest to love each other despite everything getting in their way. Without ever drawing attention to its authenticity the rural, blue-collar milieu establishes itself forcefully, the isolation forcing Samantha and Curtis to rely on each other if only because there's nowhere else to go.
The surreal and scary visuals of the dreams are the most striking-- Skyline masterminds Greg and Colin Strause, believe it or not, helped provide stellar and subtle special effects--but Nichols films even the cornfields and Lions Club halls of this small Ohio town with a keen and loving eye that gives the film a quintessentially American, almost epic feel. It's a gorgeous movie to look at, and then all the more unsettling for its beauty. I can't promise to know entirely what it means, or what inspired actors as gifted as Shannon and Chastain to throw themselves so fully into these characters as part of such a bizarre narrative-- I'm just glad it exists to marvel over. It's a strange and often inscrutable movie, and will be a tough sell for distribution even for indie audiences, but it's the kind of thing you've got to check out if given the chance.