Most of the time when I watch a movie for the second time, I have an agenda. I’ve made up my mind based on the experience I had in my prior viewing and so the second time I’m looking for evidence that supports my stance. Oftentimes, that means a comedy movie seems funnier or a action movie more exciting. Horror, thriller, and mystery movies suffer under this level of scrutiny, most of the time, because those genres all rely on exploiting the unknown. But truly great cinema can rise above that – I’ve always said that if a spoiler can ruin a movie, it probably wasn’t that good anyway – and Take Shelter is one such film. Because I remembered vividly how it ended, and when I got to that last shot again, I still couldn’t make up my mind 100% about what it means.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is good, ol’ fashioned family man living in a small town in Ohio. He lives with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is close to getting a cochlear implant if her parents can save enough money. Curtis works construction with his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), doing something that involves drilling deep into the earth. One day, Curtis has a terrible nightmare about a massive storm of disgusting brown water. He can’t shake his anxiety about the dream and later looks at the old storm shelter in his backyard and something just clicks with him: he’s got to completely renovate that bunker.
As time goes on, Curtis becomes obsessed with the storm shelter, taking increasingly risky measures to ensure he is prepared for whatever is coming. He continues to have nightmares and treats them all as warnings. So when he dreams of being attacked by wolves, he gives his dog away to his brother and when he dreams of his friends attacking his family, he asks for Dewart to be transferred to another crew. This the whole family to become the talk of the town and Curtis to become a bit of a pariah. He even starts to question himself, given his mother’s history of paranoid schizophrenia, but nonetheless, Curtis must complete that shelter.
The tension about Curtis’ anxiety is palpable. If he is schizophrenic, wouldn’t it look exactly like this? If he is a divine prophet, wouldn’t people believe he was mad? It’s the driving energy of the film, and gives Shannon and Chastain some juicy emotions to tap into. Writer-director Jeff Nichols said his inspiration for Take Shelter was his own anxiety, which he attributed to the great recession, global warming, his recent marriage, and the success of his first film, Shotgun Stories. It’s only been seven years since the movie came out, but I can’t help but think the current political climate makes that sort of dread seem quaint in retrospect.
On top of being a great acting showcase, Take Shelter is an incredibly visceral experience. The sound design is excellent, making everyday natural sounds seem horrifying. Similarly, the score is mostly reserved for the tensest moments, ratcheting up that feeling of dread when necessary and disappearing the rest of the time. Visually, the film is just jam-packed with memorable images. Each of Curtis’ nightmares is different and unnerving in different ways, from the violent danger of attacking people and animals to the awe-inspiring wrath and power of the weather at its worst. This movie is an experience, and it was one I was happy to have again.