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Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER

Jeff Nichols’ award-winning TAKE SHELTER takes place in rural Ohio, which is where I live, and involves a lot of rain, which describes the weather here as well. In fact, it’s been raining steadily in Southern Ohio since Sunday, so my ability to relate to the drama of precipitation was quite keen as I squirmed my way through this terrifying and ultimately moving film. As I’m smack in the middle of the same culture, where people actually go to church regularly and frequently needlepoint pillows, like young wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) does in the film, I really felt like I was there. Except that I don’t see what her husband Curtis (Michael Shannon) sees, which is much more than a steady drizzle: it’s apocalyptic storms with multiple twisters, raging birds in beautifully violent flight patterns and living room furniture that suddenly propels itself from the floor.

This story of Curtis, who attempts to understand his visions and dreams and take action in order to protect his family, is interesting in that the plot basically runs on a dramatic question that barely surfaces: Is Curtis crazy or is he some sort of prophet? But there’s almost no evidence to suggest he’s NOT crazy. The tagline of the film states, “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.” This central dramatic thrust suggests we must choose to believe Curtis is experiencing either a medical condition or a supernatural one. But corroboration on the supernatural is simply not there – there’s no gypsy witch doctor that sides with Curtis, or a wise old black man who agrees and is later killed. No, these tropes are quietly absent as the narrative relies on Curtis’ internal turmoil and builds more evidence to suggest he really is just losing his mind.

His family and community agree, and why wouldn’t they? He’s acting bonkers. Nichols’ tactic is unusual, hinging his film on an almost one-sided argument to hold up the drama, but it’s sustained by amazing performances within a subtle, suspenseful narrative. It’s hard to take your eyes off Shannon. He’s large yet understated; His ticks and trembles sharp yet subtle. When everything finally does go over the edge, it’s terrifying. The writing includes a number of clearly foreshadowed uh-oh’s, like when the insurance specialist tells Samantha to go ahead and schedule their daughter’s surgery because her husband has excellent insurance (not for long!) or when Sam tells Curtis she really wants to go to the Lion’s Club dinner because she just wants to do something normal (uh-oh!). These are ultimately forgiven by a few very nicely satisfying plot turns and the two lead performances from Shannon and Chastain that are so accurate in their portrayal of middle-of-the-country, blue collar life and the struggle to connect, to feel safe and to make a living in America. The last thing a working man needs, is to go crazy – unless, of course, he isn’t.

–AH