It's fitting that the narrative structure of Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, which involves images of violent weather, resembles a hurricane. The opening act is filled with jarring lightning, followed by weaker rains, before settling into the eye, and then moving back into the storm. It's not so much a constant path of escalation as it is a big cycle. And this cycle, in addition to any number of elements, is part of why Nichols' film stands as one of the best offerings of the year.
Take Shelter centers on Curtis LaForche (Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon), a man who lives in the Midwest with his wife Samantha (the delightfully ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and the couple's deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). As the film opens, Curtis witnesses a monumental wall of storm clouds approaching, and finds himself drenched in murky, oily rain. Are these visions, or a sign that Curtis himself may be succumbing to mental illness? Without spoiling anything, let's just say that writer/director Nichols does gives solid enough answers to the film's central question, but it does little to mitigate the film's power.
In the opening act, the first wave of the above-mentioned metaphorical hurricane, we get these dreams/visions surprisingly frequently. Had the film continued with this frequency, it could have easily lost its potency, and devolved into some art house cousin of a silly, big-budget paranormal thriller. Instead, after grabbing our attention and thoroughly unnerving us, Nichols grounds the film, saving the character development for the middle portion of the story. It's an interesting structural choice that pays off beautifully, as it gives us a taste of what is to come, without sliding into full-blown insanity strictly in the final act. And it's in this oh-so-vital middle section that Take Shelter is able to truly evolve and make its two major climaxes feel earned.
Having been wrongfully snubbed by the Emmys for his stellar supporting work on Boardwalk Empire, star Michael Shannon is given a moment in the spotlight to shine, and the way he takes the reins makes his performance a force to be reckoned with. It's generally subdued work, but when Shannon really needs to emote, whether in a series of confessions to friends and family, or in his one outburst, it all comes through. There are two critical aspects to Curtis: the man who wants to find a solution to the problem, and the man who is so afraid of upsetting his idyllic family life that he withholds information. Shannon captures these two facets with exceptional skill, resulting in a performance that mixes elements of naturalism and theatricality so as to make it all feel seamless. Backing him up is break-out actor of the year Jessica Chastain, in her 400th (4th? Eh, close enough) role of the year. As in The Tree of Life and The Help, Chastain once again plays a house wife, but it speaks volumes about her skills as an actress that there's not one ounce of Mrs. O'Brien or Celia Foote to be found in Samantha. Though the character initially starts off as a standard supportive-but-confused spouse, she evolves over the course of the film to become a strong standalone character, even if the script isn't entirely as concerned with her as it is with Curtis. I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that Take Shelter is the weakest of her four performances this year; if ever someone deserved to be an It Girl, it's her.
The rest of the cast equips themselves quite capably, though the only other figures of note are Curtis' co-worker Dewart (Shannon's Boardwalk co-star Shea Whigham) and Curtis' mother (Kathy Baker), who has one but one nicely played scene. Aside from Shannon (and to some extent, Chastain), Take Shelter is Jeff Nichols' show, and the director's skill with creating atmosphere resonates from the first frame to the last. Bolstered by a pitch perfect score by David Wingo, there's a quiet sense of foreboding, and even dread, to almost every scene in the film. The opening act so effectively gets in your head (without being over the top), that the comparatively mundane middle remains flooded with varying levels of tension. I will admit, however, that while Nichols' skills as director are just about faultless, the film's few minor flaws do stem from his work as a writer. Though generally tightly structured in its detailing of Curtis' mental instability (and quite well-edited), the script feels as though it needs just a few minor revisions. A scene involving Samantha telling Curtis to get his act together comes off as a rush of exposition, one that Chastain seems to want to hurry through as quickly as possible to get on to the next scene. A second incident, one involving Curtis' older brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), though not bad in its own right, feels redundant. There are enough encounters where people ask Curtis how he's doing, and by the time Kyle shows up, it feels like Take Shelter should be onto something else. And just when the film seems like it's ready to end on a more open-ended note, Nichols segues into the actual conclusion. The actual ending is strong (although a bit on the blunt side), but the transition is in need of a little smoothing-out.
All that said, these are but minor dents in the film's armor. Having won raves at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year, Take Shelter has been high on my radar for quite some time. Thankfully, this is one of those times where the hype has been justified. There are elements of the supernatural in Take Shelter, but Nichols keeps it all grounded to the point where it mesmerizes, rather than distracts. What could have flown off of the rails into bombastic insanity emerges as a beautifully rendered character study underscored by an intense atmosphere of doom. By the time it's over, Take Shelter will leave you shaken, to the point where, the next time you see dark clouds on the horizon (like the ones I saw when I left the theater), you might stop for a moment and think about a good hiding place.