If one were to only watch The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Take Shelter, you would gather a sense that there’s a great anxiety looming in our society. While The Tree of Life and Melancholia impose a sense of cosmic universalism in their approach, Take Shelter takes a microscopic look into such anxiety. With Take Shelter, you have a man named Curtis (the wonderful Michael Shannon) who’s living “the good life.” He has a loyal wife in Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a daughter, a home, a job, and an intelligent head on his shoulders. But storm clouds are approaching. Rain begins to pour in the consistency of motor oil. Birds fall from the sky. The furniture floats. His dog violently assaults him. Yet it’s only Curtis who sees these visions of dread.
Take Shelter’s effectiveness lies in how writer/director Jeff Nichols frames Curtis as a considerate man whose values and virtues take precedence in the face of paranoia. Curtis cares for his family above all and takes his visions as signs to protect them. But with that in mind, Curtis’ family is not purely reactionary to his behavior. Samantha is a remarkably strong character as Curtis’ wife, who serves to help her ailing husband in his time of need. The film could have played a variety of different ways, but to have a household try to figure things out for Curtis leaves one with a great sense of community; it also serves to add greater meaning to Take Shelter’s incredibly poignant (and deliciously ambiguous) ending.
Nichols wisely alludes to the sense that disaster comes in a variety of different forms; there’s the horror of nature overwhelming man, which serves to be the backdrop for most of Curtis’ visions. But there’s a far more grounded horror that can be found in how Curtis is endangering his job and therein adversely affecting necessary treatments for his daughter. Social alienation and domestic hardships only serve to amp the fear in the air.
Nichols’ material is strong, and any actor would find plenty to work with, but Michael Shannon truly takes it to a new level. Ever since Revolutionary Road, the actor has always been someone to watch. Despite such striking features, Shannon truly makes for an effective everyman. As Curtis, he has a drawl that makes him convincing as a blue collar worker, yet carries a sense of sincerity and intelligence that blends within the content of the film. And with Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, Jessica Chastain has portrayed two exceptional characters that could have easily been confined as a reactionary type; yet she has been able to flesh out both characters as complex women whose position is conflicted in a multitude of pressing ways.
Take Shelter works in the same way that The Tree of Life worked: they are both films that strike a particular social chord of grandiose ideas that don’t have easy answers. While the sheer scope of The Tree of Life is certainly more impressive, I can’t help but feel more connected with the immediacy of Take Shelter. Nichols presents the film in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems like he may actually have the answers; there’s a storm coming and we ought to get prepared for it.