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Weathering the Brainstorm

Take Shelter (2011)

Sony Pictures Classics

"Take Shelter," written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a prescient film in this time of perpetual natural disasters, as it centers around a man preparing for a storm that may or may not come. While New Yorkers boarded up windows and stockpiled canned vegetables in preparation for Hurricane Irene, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is faced with an even more fraught dilemma: Predictions of this storm stem not from the weather report, but from within his own mind. Plagued with anxiety about his family's safety while inwardly acknowledging that he may be delusional, he begins to take dramatic measures to ensure survival in the face of impending doom. The film touches on many subjects — family, mental illness, masculinity, vulnerability — but never alights on any issue with enough significance to rise above what is, essentially, schlock.

Part psychological thriller, part melodrama, "Take Shelter" tends to rely on cheap horror tricks instead of lingering on the truly eerie changes in Curtis's behavior. Disturbed by nightmares and hallucinations, he retreats from social life, kicks out the family dog and spends his hard-earned money on a backyard tornado shelter. Horror films often use mental illness as a plot device; and while the film detours into thoughtful portrayals of schizophrenia, we are just as quickly thrust back on the typical thriller trajectory. Mr. Nichols is capable of crafting a wonderful atmosphere of dread, so it is disappointing to see him revert to a strategy that equates fear with loud noises and smash cuts.

Accompanying Curtis on this journey into the unknown is his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). For all Curtis cares about her and her well-being, Hannah is almost a nonentity in the film. Cute and mute, her deafness is her only defining characteristic. To make matters worse, it is a fairly common trope to depict a person with disabilities as vaguely magical. A lack of one sense is compensated by the strength of other senses, either physical or supernatural. And while "Take Shelter" is certainly subtler than most films, it is no exception. Whenever the true storm comes, Hannah will know.

The saving grace of the film ultimately lies in Mr. Shannon's performance. Curtis goes through life in a kind of macho paralysis, but Mr. Shannon has the ability to coax nuance out of the woodenness. He can rapidly transition from old man to frightened child to trapped animal with the raise of an eyebrow or a slight grimace. It is worthwhile simply to watch how he handles this new feeling: one of helplessness. "Taking Shelter" is essentially a story about helplessness in the face of nature, with Mr. Nichols posing the question of whether it is inner or outer nature that we should fear. Unfortunately, by the time the climax rolls around, you might find that the question is far more interesting than the answer.


Opens on Sept. 30 in New York and Los Angeles and on Nov. 25 in Britain.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production design by Chad Keith; costumes by Karen Malecki; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and The Works (Britain). Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat), Ray McKinnon (Kyle), LisaGay Hamilton (Kendra), Robert Longstreet (Jim) and Kathy Baker (Sarah).


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