Take Shelter


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

Take Shelter
"It's the sort of film where everyday objects appear sinister and threatening."

Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Samantha (Jessica Chastain) are a young couple, hard up but happy, with a six-year-old daughter (Tova Stewart) who happens to be deaf. Since they live in the storm belt of Ohio, it's not unusual to see dark clouds gathering. But there's something odd about the rain that's falling, and Curtis starts to have dreams which begin with storms, dreams where his own dog viciously attacks him, strangers try to drag him from his car, his best friend and his wife behave strangely. He feels a desperate sense of foreboding, that the mother of all storms is on its way. As he starts preparing his storm shelter, those around him become afraid of what's happening to him.

Curtis himself doesn't trust his feelings. His mother developed paranoid schizophrenia in her thirties, and now he's 35. Could this be the beginning of the illness he has always dreaded?

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It is largely thanks to the strong performances of the two leads that we are not only kept guessing, but we can care about what this couple is going through. Is Curtis mentally ill, or is there something else going on? Or both?

There are very few special effects here and no gory make-up. It's the sort of film where everyday objects appear sinister and threatening. Even a little white cloud appearing round the side of a building in an otherwise clear blue sky.

Details begin to add up, a snippet of conversation about evolution, the daughter's deafness, the cracks of thunder which only Curtis seems able to hear. A scene of the couple signing with their daughter cuts to a scene of workmates apparently joking behind a window, so we can't hear what they are saying.

Each event has a possible rational explanation. A T.V. report of a chlorine gas cloud could account for the yellow rain. Nightmares and hallucinations are common results of post-traumatic stress. And yet...

Is this really happening or is he just imagining it? Since it can be argued that all cinema is illusion, it is ironic that this question has become such a well established theme. The subject of mental illness and where it might lead was a favourite of Forties film noir. Then the Fifties, with the communist threat, brought us paranoid invasion movies, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Are we being watched? Can we believe what we see and hear? Do we really know those closest to us? These are questions it seems we never tire of.

So why make a film like this now? What is the significance for our times? Terrorism, global financial collapse, climate change crisis, pandemic - take your pick. It seems it's human nature to feel that the good times can't last, that there must be something bad on the way. Survivalists prepare. The rest of us just get on with our busy lives and enjoy being scared at the movies, because the real threats are too disturbing to contemplate.

The director describes his film as a way of dealing with an anxiety that is very real in his life and, he believes, is shared by people around the world. He says “I hope there is an answer to this feeling by the end of the film.”

I suggest we will see many more films in this vein before we ever have an answer. But when you leave the cinema you will glance up at the sky, just in case.

Reviewed on: 28 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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Jennie Kermode *****

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