Take Shelter

29 Mar


Released in 2011, Take Shelter tells the story of a devoted family man who becomes overwhelmed by visions of apocalyptic storms. He must decipher whether he’s losing his mind or having premonitions, and deal with the knock-on effects of his increasingly erratic behavior.

The film starts by introducing us to Curtis (Michael Shannon); he’s just your average working American with a good looking wife, Samantha and a daughter, Hannah (Jessica Chastain and Tova Stewart respectively). She’s deaf by the way, which is a nice touch in helping ground the story.

One night, Curtis has a dream that he’s stood in his garden looking out at an approaching storm. From the sky falls black rain. As anybody would do, he looks a bit concerned (rain shouldn’t be black you see). Scared by the storm, his dog attacks him and Curtis wakes up screaming in pain. For the rest of the day he can’t escape the physical pain of the imagined dog bite.

So it goes that over a period of time, Curtis’ dreams become more realistic and harder for him to shake, and gradually the dreams begin incorporating those closest to him. Becoming more and more convinced that he is not having a breakdown, but actually having premonitions about a real storm that is soon to hit, Curtis sets to work building a storm shelter (that’ll be the shelter of the title).


Now, I know what you’re thinking. “An average working American builds a storm shelter in his garden that is capable of surviving an apocalypse. That must be pricey, right?” Well, yeah, it is. So not only does Curtis have problems in his head, but also he begins to struggle financially. Add in to the mix that this is taking its toll on his working life, and it all begins to paint a very miserable picture for Curtis.

Now, cards on the table; I love this film. I think it’s brilliant. The story in itself is interesting and is elevated by the quality of the acting. Michael Shannon as Curtis is an example of how to cast a part perfectly. This may sound cruel but I promise it is not meant to; Shannon has the perfect face for playing a man suffering a high level of mental trauma. That’s a compliment, honest. Aside from his looks though, Shannon has proven himself to be a fine actor. The first I was aware of him was through watching the fantastic Boardwalk Empire. As that show has progressed he has become an increasingly important character, and since then I noticed him popping him up in a lot of old films that I’ve watched, where he has fairly small parts. His performance here shows that he is a man who can lead a film brilliantly and he deserves to be a household name in my opinion.

Jessica Chastain also produces a good, if not stand-out performance as the increasingly flustered wife. Her story arc is well written and compliments that of Curtis well. A lot of what happens to Curtis is affected by the reactions of his wife to his behavior.

The film is at its best when it’s at his most tense. This occurs in several ways. Sometimes it’s when we’re dropped into Curtis’ head and can see his visions for ourselves. These are usually creepy and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll not sit comfortably in your seat for short periods of this movie. At other times the tension comes from the conversations Curtis has with those that are concerned for him. It’s to the credit of director Jeff Nichols that personal relationships are regularly allowed to take centre stage. Getting the balance between the marital woes and the “is-he/isn’t-he crazy” elements of the tale take a level of skill that Nichols nearly always produces.

Around the middle of the film the story does start to lag a little. However, just when you fear that you may lose interest, it picks up again. It’s not a major problem and you should never find yourself bored.


One criticism I have seen a few times of this movie is that the ending isn’t very good. Without giving anything away, I actually found the ending to be perfect. You can either accept it for what it is or you can go away and think about all of the actions and decisions of key characters that lead to that point. I found that a pretty interesting and rewarding thing to do.

Take Shelter is a shining example of how to get a thriller right. At times creepy and nearly always interesting, it’s probably the film I have recommended to other people most over the last year or so. Taken at face value, it’s a good story. If you want to look deeper, it can be taken as a subtle(ish) commentary on the American economic troubles of recent times (I’ll let you look elsewhere for that because there are people far more qualified than me to discuss it). What are less subtle are the reflections on the lives of ordinary people being blighted by mental illness and the impact that has on personal relationships. There are so many brilliant elements to this film, but ultimately, it belongs to the magnificent Michael Shannon and his powerhouse performance.



3 Responses to “Take Shelter”

  1. biggreenjelly March 30, 2013 at 19:20 #

    Well played Burnsy. Burnso. Burnseroony. I like this film very much as you know but I’d completely forgotten that Chastain played the wife. I think that’s becuase Shannon shines so bright that the other characters just fade into the background. I remember liking the ending when I saw it, though I can’t quite remember what it is now.

    I keep meaning to ask if you’ve seen Revolutionary Road. Shannon is good/bat-shit crazy in that one.

    • Richard Burns March 30, 2013 at 23:37 #

      Well, not remembering the ending will make for an interesting re-watch when you get chance.
      Yeah Shannon does very much take centre stage, it’s no slight on Chastain that her performance isn’t especially memorable, she’s given no hope of standing out.

      I have not seen Revolutionary Road. I’ll check it out. I also want to see Shotgun Stories, another Nichols film featuring Shannon.


  1. Mud | I Liked That Film - May 13, 2013

    […] from writer and director Jeff Nichols, following 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2011’s magnificent Take Shelter. For the first time not looking to Michael Shannon for a leading role, Nichols casts Matthew […]

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