Take Shelter

Take Shelter

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The lone man who makes a stand when the world refuses to believe him, going all out to save his family, is a classic Hollywood hero figure. In real life, however, things can be very different. When construction worker Curtis (Michael Shannon) comes to believe that a tempest is coming "the likes of which you have never seen," he begins working frantically to repair and extend an old storm shelter. If he's right, it must be worth the sacrifice of almost anything else. But Curtis has a mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her mid 30s. He's 35. Could he be losing his mind?

Take Shelter is an astounding film about an ordinary family facing extraordinary struggles. It builds its slender premise into a tale with mythic overtones, yet neither elides nor apologises for the mundanity of its subject matter. Curtis is a rational man trying hard to make sense of the circumstances in which he finds himself. He faces the same hard choices as millions of Americans, trying to balance his own possible mental health needs against the cost of a cochlear implant for his deaf daughter. The daughter (Tova Stewart, who is deaf herself) is the only other person who seems to see the warning signs he sees - but does this mean they're real, or that she has inherited his condition, or something else? His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) can't understand at all, but loves him. As each faces serious doubts about the other, can that be enough?

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In cinema, of course, we follow not only the story set out before us but stories we have encountered before. This will strengthen the suspicion, for many, that what Curtis believes is real - and even as he becomes more confused and paranoid, one cannot help but think that this is exactly how the strain of others' disbelief might affect someone. Take Shelter is about a clash of realities - Curtis' and Samantha's, the cinematic and the real, the big picture view (it is, after all, entirely possible that calamity will strike some day) and the focused pursuit of ordinary day to day goals.

Michael Shannon is remarkable in the leading role, to the point where it seems necessary to caution those who have been through similar struggles themselves that this is a hard film to watch. Curtis' emotional disintegration is profound, and alongside this Shannon effectively invokes a physical transformation, as the unassuming family man becomes a brooding presence, a potentially deadly threat to those around him.

Chastain is perfectly cast in a role that echos her recent work in The Tree Of Life - her physical fragility emphasises that threat, but also the need Curtis feels to protect her. Underneath a day to day persona filled with light and laughter she reveals something steely, a different kind of strength, as Samantha stands up to her husband, determined to save him. The film is largely a two-hander and would probably also work well as a play, but that would be to sacrifice Adam Stone's stunning cinematography which finds an otherworldly beauty in the landscape of quarries, fields and little suburban houses.

With an ending that will leave you wondering about it for a long time, Take Shelter is one of those films that will leave you feeling you have really experienced something, even if that experience is akin to being repeatedly punched. It's emotionally powerful and intellectually stimulating, a tour de force.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2011
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After experiencing visions of impending catastrophe, an ordinary man takes extraordinary measures - but can he trust the evidence of his own senses?
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Read more Take Shelter reviews:

Val Kermode ****


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