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With: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley, Robert Longstreet, Kathy Baker, Guy Van Swearingen, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Ray McKinnon
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 120
Date: 01/24/2011
IMDB

Take Shelter (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gathering Storm

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 2008, writer/director Jeff Nichols made his feature debut with the powerful Shotgun Stories, a movie told through silences and absences and aborted violence. Now he's back, reunited with his star Michael Shannon, with an even more powerful movie, Take Shelter. In this movie, violence manifests itself through uncontrollable, frightening dreams, which leaves the dreamer even more helpless than some grim threat in the waking light.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a good family man in a small Ohio town. He works as a crew chief, helping operate a massive drill for a mining company. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) sells her wares at a craft fair. Their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), is deaf, but together with their dog, they all seem happy. It even works out that Curtis' health insurance will pay for a cochlear implant for Hannah.

Then Curtis starts having the dreams. The first one involves a gathering storm on the horizon, and then the dog breaking free from its rope and biting Curtis on the arm. Curtis explains to the doctor that he felt actual pain in his arm all day long. He can't shake his fear of the dog and locks the animal away behind a fence.

More dreams come and Curtis begins taking steps to prevent them coming true, including separating himself from his friends and building a very expensive storm cellar to avoid the awesome storm he thinks is coming. Between dreams Curtis tries to navigate the pitfalls of his life, going to therapy at the free clinic and deciding not to tell Samantha any of this. Whereas most movies would make a whole theme out of this miscommunication, in Take Shelter, it's merely a character trait. Curtis can't tell Samantha because he doesn't know how.

Whereas the movie has a doozy of an ending, it won't do to discuss much more plot. It doesn't even feel like it has a plot. It feels like a series of events happening over a series of days. Nichols has a way of delving into the spaces between and around a moment, giving it breath and life. When Curtis wakes up each morning and sips his coffee, it really feels like morning. Thus life is so ordinary that the dreams are all the more powerful. They haunt the rest of the movie, and they have the power to make you tense up and freeze with dread.

The movie also plays with the idea of mental illness. Curtis worries that he is becoming schizophrenic like his mother (Kathy Baker), who currently resides in an assisted-living center. The movie is smart enough not to paint Curtis with wild-eyed rage, but rather gives him the facilities to worry and wonder, to question his sanity with perfect saneness. In this, Shannon gives an absolutely extraordinary performance.

Take Shelter makes mention of the current economy just a couple of times, but it's not a major theme. It's merely understood that the world isn't all that it should be, and that everything we have can be lost in a moment, whether through some natural, or man-made disaster. Indeed, the entire thing is based on an indefinable, hovering dread. Whereas most movies are made to help avoid this kind of dread, Take Shelter faces it, and lets us know that we're not alone.

A new DVD from Sony Picture Classics has a ten-minute making-of featurette, two deleted scenes, a 20-minute onstage Q&A with actors Shannon and Whigham, and a commentary track with Shannon and director Nichols. There are also a whole bunch of trailers.

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