With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols delivers a thriller that every other film of the genre should aspire to be. It’s thrilling from beginning to end. It has pacing down to a science, and, most importantly, it rests the entire film on the shoulders of two phenomenal actors instead of depending on cheap scares.
Take Shelter follows Curtis (Michael Shannon), a construction worker with a family history of schizophrenia, as he begins to have dreams and vision of an upcoming apocalypse. The rest of the film acts as a thrill ride as you try to find out whether Curtis is succumbing to schizophrenia or is in fact a prophet. None of this could have been possible without Jeff Nichols’ superb direction or taut script. Nichols’ ability to create such an eerie and unsettling atmosphere is astounding, and he clearly knows what he is doing when it comes to pacing a film. The film starts quietly and slowly as it introduces us to these characters (and all of the major characters are not only three-dimensional but memorable), but it slowly progresses to a firework-laden, edge-of-your-seat finale. Not a moment in the film seems superfluous and by the second half you won’t be able to look away (despite some of the terrible things that happen on screen). This second half of the film also delivers one of the most memorable scenes in recent cinema history as Curtis finally transitions from passive father to the go-getter the film had long been hinting he would transform to at a local club dinner. It’s a powerful moment in which Jeff Nichols is able to capture all of the shock of the moment. However, Nichols’ most important skill is also on display here: He let’s the actors take the front stage.
Michael Shannon delivers the best performance of his career here. Shannon has always been an actor known for portraying characters that involve a lot of over-the-top acting. This becomes very distracting at times, especially in the hands of Shannon. However, here his most dramatic moments (such as the scene at the local club dinner) come off as natural. This is definitely due to the restrained performance he gives for the rest of the film. Most importantly, Michael Shannon quickly creates a character that you want to believe in and root for. So, no matter how questionable or stupid his actions become, you can’t help but hope he is going to make it out okay.
Surrounding Shannon is a slew of great performances. Most memorable is Jessica Chastain as his wife. Chastain continues what may be the biggest breakout (acting ability-wise) year ever. Chastain more than keeps up the pace with Shannon and actually comes across as an equal to his powerhouse performance. She also (with a lot of help from the writing) never lets her character fall into any of the typical problems women characters have in films. The film also features Shea Whigham’s (Boardwalk Empire) best performance yet as he perfectly plays a friend (and possible victim) of Curtis’s actions.
Take Shelter is the best kind of thriller around (the film equivalent of Breaking Bad). It knows its key to success is through the actors. It is perfectly paced, and the suspense is so great that you may have a bit of trouble sleeping at night from it.