Storms are a scary thing. They’re big, they kill people, and they can sweep up houses easily. You know what else is scary? Big, brawny men attacking you and your daughter in your dreams, causing you to pee your pants and have seizures, that’s what. These are a couple of the things that Take Shelter’s troubled protagonist Curtis (Michael Shannon) experiences. A working husband and father in his mid 30s, Curtis begins to experience apocalyptic visions of a storm that will wipe out a huge amount of the population. These nightmares provoke him to start building an expensive storm shelter in his backyard, a mere weeks before his daughter is scheduled to have a surgery that will permanently fix her hearing problem.
Take Shelter, which was directed by Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols, is a very interesting film with a fascinating premise, but not necessarily a very good movie. All the components for a great indie film are here: a great plot, an even better cast, with mediocre special effects, and some good writing. But there’s a lot missing too.
For one, Jeff Nichols, as inspired and hard working as he seems to be, doesn’t do a great job conveying the horror that is supposed to be experienced by both Curtis and the viewer. The insight into his dreams comes off as amateurish, like M. Night came in for the day and took over during those scenes. The camerawork in many scenes comes off as almost aimless, like Nichols didn’t really know how to shoot an empty sky. Then again, who can blame him? All the sky visuals were added in post-production, and it can be extremely difficult to get a shot like that the right way. Regardless, maybe a more experienced director behind the camera would’ve been a better idea.
Another thing that bothered me was the casting of Michael Shannon. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s a fantastic actor. His performance in 2006’s Bug was the most underrated performance of the year. He deserved more recognition for it than he ultimately received. But as great as he is, unfortunately, his stern facial expressions and refusal to smile makes him seem like the most frightening family man to have ever walked the Earth. I didn’t buy it at all, and I’m shocked that everyone else seemed to. I had some reservations about this walking in, and they were confirmed within the first five minutes. With that being said, there’s a particularly funny scene involving him, his wife and his daughter in a family class for their hearing impaired child. It’s really the only scene that peeks at another side of Shannon, one less uptight.
Before watching the film, I read an interview with both director Jeff Nichols and Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife in the film. Nichols spoke about how he felt inexperienced around all of the special effects technology, and Chastain spoke about how serious Shannon was when they first met, offering a handshake rather than a hug. These two things are very noticeable in the film, as the interactions between Chastain and Shannon, as well acted as they are, appear a little awkward to me.
Take Shelter had the potential to be a modern classic, and according to many top critics and Rotten Tomatoes (it currently holds a near perfect 93%), it may very well become that. It’s getting major Oscar buzz, as well as critical and audience acclaim, but I can’t help but think that if the same film was released ten years ago, it would’ve been ripped apart by those very people. Has the 2011 Oscar bait been so bad, that critics thirst for pseudo-intellectual, amateur filmmaking like this? I don’t know, but time will tell.