TAKE SHELTER opens with Curtis (played vividly and thoughtfully by Mike Shannon) standing in his driveway. He is in his mid-thirties, works digging in the earth, and is looking at an Ohio sky that is dumping a type of rain that he’s never seen before. It’s a big scene of big sky and big sounds. The scene then cuts to him in the shower. It is the kind of edit that lets the viewer know there is a deliberate mind behind this film. This is a cinematic cue that you should be paying attention.
TAKE SHELTER is about many things. It seems each viewer leaving the movie has a different take on it. I’m inclined to see the film as an intriguing study on the tendency of gender roles to blur and blend in times of crisis.
Curtis is a man in the Midwestern sense of the word—simple, hardworking, not too chatty, and also not too far from being a little boy. His wife Samantha, played exquisitely by Jessica Chastain, takes care of him and their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah. In one pivotal scene, Curtis arrives to a parent-teacher conference covered from head to toe in mud. He had been running late and didn’t have enough time to shower after working outside all day. During the meeting we see Curtis behaving like a mischievous child who’s been out playing in the mud. He prefers to conspire with Hannah as if he were her sibling rather than her parent.
His preadolescent tendencies are played out with his best friend and workmate Dewart (Shea Whigham). This is highlighted by the only reference to sex in the movie, which is made when Dewart tosses out a sexual fantasy which is beautifully crushed when we see his wife, who appears less than cordial.
As TAKE SHELTER progresses it becomes evident that Samantha is the strong stuff that binds family together. It is a role thrust upon her, but she embraces it and does it with sensible affection. Sewing and cooking are just as second nature to Samantha as playing in the dirt and removing junk piles are to Curtis. Everyone seems at ease with his or her place.
Then things gets weird.
Curtis is separating from the people around him. He is seeing things others are not. Is he nuts? Well, his mom was about his age when she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His sleep is disturbed by dreams that are becoming more and more palpable and that are merging with his waking life. He seeks help but in that Midwestern, blue-collar, big-toe-in-the-sand way that butts up against the ridiculousness of asking a paranoid person to trust others enough to talk to them about his paranoia.
As he goes further inward, he pours this frenetic energy into renovating the storm shelter. He stops coming to bed at night and makes very poor choices around his job. As financial realities mount, Samantha becomes aware that her version of providing for the family is about getting a surgery for their daughter, not about funneling all their resources into a shelter from a storm that no one else seems to think is coming.
In a critical scene, Curtis pulls the straps off his stoic, masculine reserve and lets his community know, uncharacteristically multi-syllabically, that he knows something they do not. (If you are lucky enough to have seen Michael Shannon take his character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire over the edge of insanity, you will realize this scene in TAKING SHELTER goes further down that road to what better be an Oscar nomination.) However, it is the character Samantha who takes the scene home by doing what is best for the family, to hell with what people think. We should all be so lucky.
Tension mounts within the family and within the community as Curtis’ dreams come faster and more furiously from the darker recesses of his mind. The judicious employment of CG in this film is riveting, , creating an Ohio skyline rife with unearthly clouds and swarms of birds coming together and diverting into patterns that look like schools of fish in the presence of a shark. These images are unsettling on many levels but not bludgeoning. They are necessary for the flow of the movie and are balanced nicely with the calm of Samantha’s steadfast resolve to keep the family together.
The first hour of the movie seems to be taking off toward a heart stopping crescendo. However, the last hour of the movie brings us into the hearts of good people getting through their day in a time when jobs are scarce and sickness—of body or mind—is frightening.
TAKE SHELTER follows a rational story arc, so it is no surprise that in the last act of the movie the storm sirens blow, which is not out of the ordinary for Ohio where tornados drop from the skies. Curtis and his family head to the shelter, for he is sure it is THE storm, not just a storm. It is in this box that Samantha makes Curtis prove that his love for his family is stronger than his allegiance to his hallucinations. It is here where many understand what the film is really about.
But, TAKE SHELTER is not over. When Hannah sees something that her father is sure only he can see, the viewer can assume what comes next. Assume nothing, for this is a well-written film that respects the viewer’s intelligence enough to dispense with an epilog. The story isn’t over until seconds before end credits roll.