Take Shelter, the second film by American director Jeff Nichols, is a film that manages to be absolutely terrifying without actually falling over into being a horror film. The film has such a persistent sense of foreboding and dread to it that whilst it may recall the works of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green in its visual style, it’s tone and atmosphere are more reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.
Much of the terror comes from the horrific nightmares experienced by Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a young husband and father who finds himself unable to sleep because of the things he sees when he closes his eyes. Each dream starts with a gathering storm that breaks, unleashing an oily water that seems to drive everyone around him insane. Each morning he awaKEs drenched in sweat, but is unwilling to discuss his problems with his wife (Jessica Chastain) because he is afraid that the dreams are a sign that he is succumbing to the same schizophrenia that claimed his mother when she was the age that he is now, and Curtis doesn’t want to leave his wife and daughter as his mother left him. Even more worrying, though, is the thought that maybe these dreams aren’t just dreams, but are visions of a coming catastrophe, and that sense of impending doom leads Curtis to begin expanding the storm shelter behind his house, an endeavour which may destroy his life and his family more completely than the storm that plagues his dreams.
Much of Take Shelter’s power to shake and unsettle the viewer lies in Nichols’ use of music and sound and the way in which he gradually ramps both of those up until they reach a frenzied pitch in the final thirty minutes. To begin with, the music consists largely of fractured, half-heard melodies that sound like a wind chime being buffeted by a light breeze and the ambient noise is barely noticeable. Even this early on things are unsettled since the incompleteness of the music feels wrong, especially when contrasted against the normalcy of everyday life in Ohio. As Curtis’ dreams get progressively more terrifying and they start to bleed into his waking life, the music starts to get fuller and by the end of the film it becomes almost deafening. The sound becomes more heightened as well, and Nichols finds ways to make even the most mundane moments seem unreal, as demonstrated by a scene in which Curtis hears thunder on a sunny day. Written down it might not seem like much, but on screen it is genuinely unsettling.
Part of what makes these little moments so effective is Michael Shannon’s restrained central performance as Curtis. Shannon plays him as a man who is desperately trying to hold everything together even as he is all too aware that he is failing to. Shannon brings a self-awareness to the character that makes him all the more tragic: even as he is taking out loans he can ill-afford to pay for his storm shelter, he is going to see doctors and counsellors to get some help with his deteriorating mental state. He knows that something is wrong, yet he feels powerless to stop himself giving in to the voices in his head, and the fear and sadness that Shannon lets show underneath Curtis’ stoicism is more powerful for the resolve that it is contrasted against. Also, much like the music and the sound, Shannon’s performance ramps up as the story progresses, until it reaches a breaking point that is at once cathartic and terrible.
Though the preceding hour and a half are compelling, it’s in its ending that Take Shelter reaches for and attains greatness. Everything preceding it builds to such a level of intensity that it almost seems like the film can’t live up to it, but it actually delivers an ending that is audacious, exhilarating and surprising, seeming at once unexpected yet completely natural given what went before. Nichols has delivered a bona fide modern masterpiece, and anyone who doesn’t know his name should learn it now, because just as Take Shelter is one of the best films of the year, he may yet prove to be one of the great film-makers of our time.