Take Shelter seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011, marking the voice of a new director, Jeff Nichols. In reality, it was his second film after the very fine Shotgun Stories. Like Take Shelter, that stars his go-to actor, Michael Shannon, but Shotgun Stories seemed to slip through the cracks, somehow missed by many critics. Shannon has been around forever, and already had a cult following amongst cineasts and an Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road (he is the best thing about that film by some distance). It was really Jessica Chastain who was the breakthrough in Take Shelter, and it’s Chastain who is now one of the biggest actresses in the world.
The film itself is a fantastical and mysterious psychological drama about a family in Ohio, and primarily the torment Curtis LaFourche (Shannon) is facing after he starts having visual and auditory hallucinations of rain “like fresh motor oil,” as he tries to describe it. His wife Samantha (Chastain) is naturally concerned, especially given that his mother became a paranoid schizophrenic when she was the age Curtis is now, and it’s a disease which often has genetic roots. Curtis starts building a storm shelter while his employment and family life is falling apart. Meanwhile, Samantha tries her best to be understanding under the circumstances, while their hearing-impaired daughter is also set for a major surgery to improve her hearing.
The performance by Shannon is quite possibly his best, but even in crap action films, he gives it his all. Nichols wrote it for Shannon after working with him on Shotgun Stories, and it plays to all his strengths. You get the craziness you want from Shannon at his most extreme, but you also get an actor who can bring it way down when he needs to, and comes off as a real creation. It’s a breathtaking performance in a career full of them. Shannon did a similar role in the excellent William Friedkin film Bug (he also did the stage version for years), but this may be a better performance on-screen because that role is dialled up to 11 for the entire time. Chastain has never been better, in my opinion, you can tell she is pulling out all her acting chops for the measly 100 bucks a day she was being paid. There are also strong supporting roles from Shea Whigham as Shannon’s co-worker, who initially helps build the storm shelter, and Marcia Gay Hamilton.
It remains one of the best American films of the last decade, by one of the most distinctly American directors of the last year. Nichols is able to merge his love of Terrence Malick with the pop-cinema of early Steven Spielberg, and especially the small town Americana that Jaws and Close Encounters (which this film owes a lot to) inhabit. It’s also the only film I can think of about a prepper that takes it completely seriously, with only a whiff of apocalyptic science fiction—and given the times we live in, I’m sympathetic to the idea of prepping. It might not be my favourite Nichols film, which is his follow-up, Mud, but he is one of the greatest American directors of his generation on the basis of his five films.
The new re-release by Second Sight is stacked with tons of extras, including a brand new interview with Nichols along with an archival long-form interview recorded during the film’s various festival runs around the word. The disc also includes behind the scenes footage and some deleted scenes. The release is rounded off with a new essay on the film and a print interview with Nichols.