There’s a certain kind of movie that almost drives you nuts but which, if you stay with it, leaves you transformed through a process you really can’t quite figure out.
The great Australian director Peter Weir had two such idiosyncratic masterpieces early in his career: The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock, films that defy rational analysis but have haunted me for more than 30 years.
This might be a movie about a man going mad ... or perhaps it’s about a man who simply senses things — bad things — that the rest of us cannot.
Michael Shannon, so memorable in his Oscar-nominated turn as a mental patient in Revolutionary Road (he was one of the few aspects of that film I was genuinely enthusiastic about), plays blue-collar husband and father Curtis.
Curtis lives in the generic Midwest with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain...again) and young hearing-impaired daughter. At first they seem to have it all.
Nice house on the edge of a big field. Good job working for a drilling company. Religious faith. Lots of love in the household. Even a chance for a cochlear implant that will allow their child to hear.
Yeah, once in a while Curtis will stay late after work for a few beers, but that’s a working man’s prerogative.
Slowly, though, Curtis starts to unravel as he’s beset by fears he cannot comprehend and dares not articulate.
It begins with a series of disturbing dreams — dreams of watching a tornado form in the sky over the field, dreams that the family dog is attacking him.
In the eerie swooping and spiraling of a huge flock of birds Curtis senses intimations of a coming apocalypse. Clicking into survival mode, he begins secretly laying plans to expand the old tornado shelter in his back yard.
Curtis takes out a substantial bank loan (without informing the Missus). He “borrows” heavy construction equipment from his employer. He stocks up on canned goods and bottled water.
At one point we go with Curtis to the care facility where his mother (Kathy Baker) has been institutionalized with schizophrenia. Clearly, the man is terrified that he’s inherited the family curse.
Shannon plays a tortured soul like nobody else in the business. He’s so good at it that Take Shelter threatens to become unbearable ... watching a man unravel is a tough night at the movies.
Shannon’s Curtis knows his behavior is disturbing and is humiliated by his weakness. But he is powerless to do anything else.
Nichols gives us a garrote of a movie that slips loosely around our necks and then slowly tightens. At some point you may tire of all this angst.
But stick with it. Take Shelter is flawed, but it has a payoff that will leave you stunned and reeling.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.