Review: ‘Take Shelter’ takes Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain on ride into anxiety

There is no scene that better captures the modern face of dread that I’ve seen in any film this year than a moment late in the new Jeff Nichols film “Take Shelter.” 

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain star in the film as Curtis and Samantha, a married couple facing a crisis in this quiet, upsetting film.  This film bothers me in the same way the Todd Haynes film “Safe” bothers me, or the way Lodge Kerrigan’s work bothers me.  These are films about losing your mind, and while I respect the fact that different things bother different people, this is one of those things I can’t imagine without squirming.  Losing my grip on my sanity, on my reason, on my ability to think?  That’s beyond a nightmare.  That is loss of self, and Michael Shannon’s work here cuts right to the heart of that fear.

It starts small for Curtis.  Dreams.  A feeling.  A growing sensation.  The film is definitely sympathetic to Curtis and his point of view, and we experience the visions and the dreams and the shifting mood with him.  What makes it heartbreaking is just how brightly Jessica Chastain burns in the movie.  After seeing all of her performances this year and ending with this one, I’m convinced she really is an important new presence in film.  She’s amazing here, this wide-open heart, the one who tames Curtis in the first place. 

I know couples like this, where the guy is this big broken piece and the wife is this healing presence, and together, they make sense.  You can see what he gets out of it.  You can see how much she needs to be that person.  It’s beautiful when it works.  I think in many key ways, my wife is a better person than I am.  It’s one of the many reasons I married her.  I believe this marriage in this film, and that’s what makes that moment I mentioned so wrenching.  Curtis has to tell his wife something that will destroy whatever trust and intimacy exists between them, something so fundamentally wrong that saying it out loud is what Curtis can’t face.  As long as he doesn’t say it, it didn’t happen.  As long as it didn’t happen, he doesn’t have to deal with it.  Nothing’s changed.  He hasn’t changed.  The world still makes sense.

Shea Whigham and Katy Mixon do nice work as a couple they’re friends with, and Ray McKinnon and Kathy Baker show up as Shannon’s brother and mother.  The idea of a family history of mental illness haunting someone isn’t new, certainly, but there’s something impressively matter-of-fact about the way Shannon steps up and takes a long look into his own past.  His desire to find his way back to normal is where most of the tension comes from in the film, and after discussing the ending with several people, I’m open to a couple of different ways to read it.  I like the ambiguity that could exist.  I’m okay with the concrete interpretation that’s also possible.  I think it’s a solid ending and a very strong slow burn, and even if I don’t think the film quite nails the punchline, I think so much of it is so great that it’s worth attention and respect.

Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker who has defined himself very quickly in just two movies.  “Shotgun Stories” is a very strong debut, with a clear sense of voice, and “Take Shelter” demonstrates that it’s not a fluke, it’s not an accident.  He’s got real control, and real taste.  I know the slow burn isn’t for everyone, and I think the argument could be made that the ending here is the ending that Kevin Smith didn’t have the stones to go for in “Red State,” an ending that changes the meaning of anything that we’ve seen up to that point.  Even so, I’m not sure it works as well as the ride that comes before it.  Whatever the case, Nicols and his regular collaborators are exciting filmmakers, and I can’t wait for whatever else they have planned.

“Take Shelter” opens this Friday.