Jeff Nichols’ low-profile American independent film Take Shelter (which he both directed and wrote) has already achieved quasi-cult status largely because of the publicity it received following its screenings and high-profile awards at film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes. Take Shelter is Nichols’ second feature after the critically acclaimed, albeit less decorated, Shotgun Stories (2008). The films are set in somewhat out-of-the-way places, accentuating the remoteness of the disturbed central character, played by Michael Shannon in each film. Though a regular face in films for nearly 20 years since Groundhog Day (1993), Shannon wasn’t fully assimilated into the public consciousness until this film. His co-star Jessica Chastain, who plays his loving and supportive wife Samantha, was largely unknown when the film was released.
The film is centred around a close-knit nuclear family. Construction worker Curtis LaForche (Shannon), his wife Samantha (Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), live in a nameless small town in Ohio. Curtis is plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions and thereafter plans to shelter his family from what he believes to be a coming storm. Curtis becomes increasingly aware of his strange behaviour and seeks counselling at a clinic where he reveals that his mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Despite this, he remains convinced of his premonitions and arranges an extended home improvement loan so that he can build a shelter in his backyard. The time spent on this, along with his counselling and treatment for his daughter, results in him missing work frequently and causes Samantha to become infuriated. When his boss discovers that he borrowed equipment and wasn’t insured, he fires Curtis and gives two weeks unpaid leave to his colleague Dewart (Shea Whigham) who helped him construct the shelter. In a heated scene, Curtis and Dewart subsequently fight at a community gathering, with Curtis screaming to everyone about a storm that is coming and nobody being prepared for it.
Curtis will later gain partial vindication for his outburst when a tornado warning persuades his wife and daughter to follow him into the shelter. This is the most intriguing scene of the film in that it forms a separate isolated world. It is poignant and significant in that we see how Curtis copes in this fortified claustrophobia that polarises his tortured world above. The shelter paradoxically symbolises a safe haven that he has locked his family into and graphically exposes his mental state. After the family awake from sleeping, Curtis reluctantly removes his gas mask after much persuasion from Samantha, but when she asks him to open the shelter doors he is reluctant, as he believes that the storm is still raging outside; a crucial step for Curtis in his fight against paranoia and schizophrenia. Samantha emotionally pleads for him to open the shelter on behalf of the family but, more than this, to demonstrate his bravery and the strength to overcome by accepting her independent judgement. Later, a therapist tells them to take their planned beach vacation but also informs Curtis he will need to undergo stronger therapy when he returns.
Though initial inspiration appears to be a straightforward and heartfelt plea for understanding mental illness, Nichols’ film arguably culls certain stylistic influences from creepy psychological films of the last 20 years like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Donnie Darko (2001), even Inland Empire (2006), particularly in terms of the mentally out-of-synch lead character. Adding weight to this psychosis, prevalent in all these films, is the post-modern condition – the post-industrial schizophrenia of the self, brought about by wider insecurities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – an individual insecure in work, relationships and the contrived community of the media-manipulated global village.
Much of the impact of unique and memorable films, whether big budget or independent, lies in the way they create an original and captivating atmosphere. Whether this is plausible or stretching the boundaries, such films should be both compelling to watch and resonate in the consciousness afterwards. Nichols conjures up a distinct atmosphere, due in large part to his manipulation of the mise-en-scene to create tension, particularly in the isolated locations, so that our imagination takes over. He not only creates an eeriness by contrasting Curtis’s physical stature with his paradoxically fearful and at times cowering persona, but also in the silences between dialogue so that the nervous atmosphere is elevated to a higher level. What makes Take Shelter different is the strangely comforting nature of the doom that is projected onto the audience. This becomes progressively more plausible in that, as a low-budget independent production, it uses no manipulation of star actor persona and few post-production effects to achieve its aims.
With its DVD release, just over a year since it first took audiences by surprise at Sundance, part of Take Shelter’s subsequent success lies in its potentially broader appeal through the ubiquitous formats of DVD, pay-per-view, etc. The festival awards have done no harm to its potential marketability, but it had very limited cinema screenings after the festivals, so it will be interesting to see whether it makes a commercial breakthrough or simply remains the thinking person’s cult drama-thriller, psychological sub-horror or apocalyptic film.