I’m going to sound like a broken record, but you need to see the criminally under-seen Shotgun Stories. Take Shelter is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up and it is as assured a piece of cinema you’ll find all year. I want to say an instant classic, but time will bear that statement out, not my raves. It’s taken me a few weeks to write this, but the movie has so many ideas to volley in my brain, I’m glad I waited. It’s the kind of movie you’ll want to instantly devour a second time, not because you missed something but because it truly immerses you into the psyche of the main character while still leaving you with many disturbing questions.
Michael Shannon is Curtis, a mid-west construction worker who is having some startling nightmares. Curtis has a wife, played by the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, and a deaf daughter and many minor complications that befall any normal family. But otherwise, he has a good life, his friend and co-worker, played by Shea Whigham, tells him as much at the start of the film. Unfortunately, Curtis is slowly losing his grip on reality. His dreams are paranoid visions of violent storm clouds, lightning, and oil-thick rain. Eventually, these dreams seep into Curtis’ waking life and it begins to crumble.
A couple of things make this better than it already sounds. One key point is that Curtis is very aware of what is happening. His family has a history of mental illness, so these dreams are even more unsettling because we are witnessing a person drown in his own psychosis. The dreams themselves are obviously not real, but at the same time presented so bluntly that they dig right under your skin. The imagery is derived from rational fears–your child in the middle of the road–so they become that much harder to shake. All of this lures us into Curtis’ head, so we kind-of-sort-of understand it when he starts building his tornado shelter and stocking up on canned goods. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t.
Shannon is a beast in this movie. He does tend to play characters that are a little screwy, kind of like Jack Nicholson. But like Jack in Cuckoo’s Nest, Shannon’s performance is no less of an achievement, even if it is within his wheelhouse. Shannon keeps everything subtle and simmering. He let’s the damage play through his physicality and small escalating tics, but he doesn’t stop being a father or a family man. He believes his actions are excusable, so when he loses his shit there is a real well-earned compassion for the character.
Chastain is also very strong here. She’s more than just the naysayer or a nag. She’s a truly concerned and scared mate. This is most apparent when the film shifts its focus for one of the nightmares. Instead of seeing what Curtis sees, we see what it’s like to wake up next to someone experiencing true terror, and it is the most shocking thing I’ve seen on-screen in awhile.
The film builds to a frightening climax. I had no idea what was going to happen and the film dragged this feeling out into what felt like eternity. It’s rare to watch something and not know where it’s heading, and rarer to be deathly afraid of where it might. Even after this shattering scene, the film still has a final epilogue to mess with our heads. Whether you take it at face value or delve deeper into some of the complicated implications, the ending is as astonishing as the rest of the movie you’ve been watching.
(Also, you should go rent Shotgun Stories)