Curtis (Michael Shannon) is having bad dreams. Bad dreams are a bit low key to accurately describe what he dreams at night; absolute night terrors works better. He dreams his faithful dog suddenly attacks him and takes a chunk out of his arm and later he dreams his best buddy stabs him with a pickax. There is no warning these events would ever occur in reality, but for some reason, Curtis’s arm still aches the rest of the day after the dog dream.
This sounds like the setup to a horror film but Take Shelter is far from that genre. Curtis has more than a stirring suspicion at what is really going on in his head. When his mother was his age, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has spent the rest of her life in assisted living because of it. This scenario scares Curtis more than anything in the world because just before these dreams, he was a very happy and loving family man.
His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) spends the majority of her time taking care of their deaf daughter and creating handicrafts to sell at the local neighborhood yard sale. Their family is not rich, but Curtis has a steady job in drilling and they get by. However, these sudden dreams and later on hallucinations are starting to take their toll on the family harmony. Curtis feels something is coming. He does not know exactly what it is, but he tries to describe it as the ultimate storm — something bigger than anyone has ever seen.
To prepare, he starts renovating an old storm shelter in the backyard, at significant cost. Most of these things he does without informing his wife which upsets her even more. Samantha is well aware of what happened to Curtis’s mother and, just like his friends and neighbors (even Curtis himself), starts to worry just how far down the rabbit hole these actions are going to go.
Take Shelter smartly takes into account the current life and times of its rural Ohio setting. Curtis knows he is lucky to have a job because a lot of people do not and times are rough out there for the unemployed. They show how hard it is to muddle through the healthcare bureaucracy to see the correct doctor signed off by the insurance company for the correct procedure they are willing to pay for. They are just as shocked at pharmacy co-pays as everyone else is.
What does not work and sets the film back is its pacing. I do not shy away from what some folks refer to as “slow” cinema but Take Shelter can really test your patience and stamina. There is not a lot of action and movement here and there is no increased amount of dialogue to make up for it. There is a huge amount of time devoted to watching Curtis’s face, wincing cheekbones, and the troubling weather on the horizon which may or may not be real.
This is a huge burden for actor Michael Shannon but as he usually does, he provides a remarkable performance. I would support his name being mentioned around Oscar time for his work here. He has been outstanding before, especially in Revolutionary Road, and his Curtis character here is somewhat reminiscent of other characters he has played with mental issues in Bug and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Jessica Chastain does not have near as many sustained one on one solo shots with the camera but she shows once again why she has come out of nowhere to be this year’s breakthrough actress. It seems she is in a film once a month nowadays with The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, and now this. I had never heard her name before May of this year and now she is showing up everywhere.
Take Shelter is also getting rave reviews from the established critics. Ebert gave it four stars and it won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. What am I missing? The acting is top notch but the script is sparse, the pacing is snail-paced, and there is not much else to make up for that. I do not recommend anyone go see this because it more than just feels empty, it really is. There is no substance to wrap yourself around. There is Michael Sheen of course, but he just cannot shoulder the weight all by himself without some additional help from the writer.