Writer-director Jeff Nichols presents paranoia in its most raw state in his new film “Take Shelter,” which stars Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The film tells the story of Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a man caught between his vivid visions of an apocalyptic future and his daily duties to his wife and daughter. As LaForche floats between his hellish nightmares and the stable life he has built for himself at home, he—along with the audience—is slowly overtaken by an overwhelming sense of dread and anxiety.
Throughout this taut psychological thriller, viewers are tantalized by one overriding question: are we witnessing one man’s descent into mental illness, or something more profound? Are LaForche’s visions mere delusions or genuine portents of things to come—a dire diagnosis for the world we inhabit? With its suspenseful rendering of this conundrum, a resolution that does not disappoint, and compellingly drawn characters, “Take Shelter” is a resounding filmmaking success.
At film’s outset, protagonist LaForche is presented as a wholesome, loving father and husband in a rural Ohio town—one who works hard as a construction worker to keep his family financially afloat and to take care of his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He has a devoted wife in Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and generally leads a fortunate blue-collar existence. But this comfortable constancy is exactly what fuels LaForche’s anxiety, for the more one has, the more one has to lose.
LaForche’s growing fear of inchoate catastrophe is powerfully portrayed through a series of arresting visions that grow increasingly more violent as the film proceeds—an escalation which mirrors the increasing severity of LaForche’s paranoia. Shannon’s rendering of his character’s mounting terror provides a chillingly apt exploration of the bounds of the human psyche, as LaForche scrambles desperately to save not only his loved ones but himself from his perceived horrors.
The visions themselves are part apocalyptic and part sci-fi horror, with all the markings of madness. Nichols juxtaposes these unreal images of unconstrained destructive forces with the mundane images of LaForche’s domestic life. The camera weaves back and forth between storms and showers and drills and sewing machines. On the one hand, these parallels offer an ostensible contrast, but on the other, they suggest that LaForche’s anxieties may have more grounding than is initially apparent. As he himself explains, “it’s hard to explain because it’s not just a dream, it’s a feeling … I’m afraid that something is coming, something that is not right.”
As LaForche descends deeper into himself and slowly disconnects from reality, his only support comes from his loved ones. Chastain provides a sane, rational foil to Shannon’s hysteria, and through her faithfulness the strength of their relationship is movingly affirmed. This familial bond, buoyed by Chastain’s poignant performance, adds a tenderness to the film that serves as a key counterbalance to the otherwise pervasive dread which builds from its very first apocalyptic dream sequence.
Even as they evoke simple delirium, LaForche’s suffocating visions, obsessive desire to build his family a storm shelter, and constant anxiety seem to reflect a greater global uneasiness. In the film’s real world, there are scattered visual and plot elements of a twisted, modern-day Noah’s Ark tale, a foreboding image which leaves the audience wondering if LaForche isn’t actually insane but rather sensing a societal malaise that threatens all.
Through it all, Shannon delicately straddles a fine line between madman and potential prophet, and a feeling of dread creeps up on viewers inch by inch, as LaForche—the audience’s own anchor—unravels. Nichols masterfully marshals ominous music and dramatic visuals to keep audience members on edge throughout the film, and thus draws them into Shannon’s “reality” and blurs their own mental distinctions between the real and unreal.
At the 37th Deauville American Film Festival in France, “Take Shelter” took home the top honors, and it’s not hard to understand why. A mesmerizing thriller that expertly oscillates between the unnerving fear of the unknown and the comfortable familiarity of the mundane, “Take Shelter” is a cinematic parable for our own turbulent times.