There's a moment late in to Take Shelter where the character of Curtis says "There's a storm coming." This phrase has been countless times in films and television but by the time it occurs in this film, it's an extremely compelling moment especially since the character has been so bottled up until this point. In fact the whole movie is similar to this moment in that it takes things which may seem like old hat- a family breaking a part, visions of an apocalypse and descent in to mental illness, and finds what makes themes like this so achingly human.
What I admired most about Take Shelter is how despite it dealing with this intensely dramatic idea about a man dreaming abut the end of the world, the film never loses its footing in the real world. Writer/director Jeff Nichols wants us to feel something like this could be happening right now. He achieves this effect by making it ambiguous whether Curtis is actually experiencing premonitions or if he is suffering from mental illness. We learn later in the movie that Curtis' mother suffers from schizophrenia. Either scenario is terrifying. Either there is an apocalypse coming, and everything he loves will be destroyed- or he is just hallucinating these things and he'll still lose everything he loves as he descends further in to madness. For Nichols, and by extension Curtis, mental illness is a kind of apocalypse.
Not only does Nichols instill this ambiguity in us but in Curits as well. He himself does not know if he is going insane or if the world will end. This makes Curtis a more complex character and allows us to be on the same page as him, doubting and then believing. Michael Shannon plays Curtis and he has a great face which is jut fascinating to watch. It's perfect for Curtis because it can suggest madness while still having a self restraint. This communicates Curtis' inner struggle and his attempt to keep this struggle from his wife Samantha and his daughter. Shannon plays this dilemma without words and when he finally has the outburst where he tells his co-workers that a storm is coming, it almost knock you over. Shannon deserved an Ocar nomination for his performance.
Jessica Chastain, who appeared in several films in 2011 gives an equally subltle and moving performance as Samantha. As in The Tree of Life, inhabits the kind of mother and wife we all want. Her and Shannon create a husband and wife relationship which feels really lived in. Her plea to her husband near the end of the film to open the shelter door, that "this is what it means to stay with us," brings the movie to its emotional climax soley with her voice.
I like the idea of Curtis and Samantha having a deaf daughter. It adds texture to their relationship and pays off right at the end of the film.
While Nichols' visual style is understated, it's very purposeful in the way he frames actors and holds shots for a certain amount of time. I liked how he visualized the dreams as if they real, then slowly making us realize we were in a dream.
For me, Take Shelter, while it was about the broad notion of a apocalypse, was partly about post 9/11 paranoia. How do I protect my family against something which can come at any moment?
When Curtis and his family go in to the storm shelter near the end of the film, it was hard for me not to think of films like Hitchcock's The Birds or M. Night Shaymalan's Signs. I wish more of the film was spent down there. I have a mixed reaction to the ending. I'm not sure if takes away some of the ambiguity of the film or adds more layers to the film.
Either way, Take Shelter is an immensely affecting film and one of the finest films of 2011.