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Take Shelter - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Take Shelter
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Special Effects: B+

Take Shelter is a very well crafted film that otherwise defies description. The best I can do is to call it a horror mystery, although it plays more like a drama -- and one that takes its time at that. But writer-director Jeff Nichols expertly builds the momentum slowly but steadily, until it reaches a bewilderingly abrupt end.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a husband and father in his mid-thirties living in rural Ohio and making a decent living as a construction worker. Apparently out of nowhere, he starts having horrifyingly vivid dreams, and he takes them seriously. When he dreams of his dog attacking him and biting through his arm, which continues to hurt all day even after he wakes up, he builds an outdoor pen for the dog without offering any explanation. For a very long time, he hides the nightmares from his wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, this year also in The Debt, The Tree of Life, and The Help), leaving her to wonder at his increasingly strange behavior.

Curtis also dreams of people attacking him, sometimes coming after his daughter, a 4-year-old who is deaf and still learning sign language. The people are never seen clearly; they are only a clear threat. And Curtis has an understandable desire to do whatever he can to protect this child, who needs special care because she can't hear, say, something that goes bump in the night (or, in the case of Curtis's dreams, always in the daytime). He also has abandonment issues: his mother (Kathy Baker) has been in assisted living since her paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis two and a half decades ago, when she wandered off one day and left him in the car in a parking lot. Curtis begins to make doctor and counselor appointments on the sly, terrified that maybe he's schizophrenic too.

Dreams are often a tired crutch in film, but here they are used with great skill as a means of blurring the line between fiction and reality in one man's mind. We don't know until the very end, indeed the very last minute or so, whether or not Curtis is really crazy. Until then, it almost doesn't even matter: we feel for Curtis, and are afraid for him, either way.

The dreams, in fact, have a fascinating way of getting both less specific and more unnerving as time goes on. After a few brief dream sequences, all he has to do is see his wife in one dream; we don't even have to see the dream end, and we know it can't be good. We always know when he's dreaming, but due to very subtle clues in cinematography: a slow tracking shot moving forward through his house. Most of the dreams are genuinely scary to watch, and Curtis's waking life gets increasingly scary as a result. Not knowing what will happen in a dream, then being unsure of how Curtis will behave when awake, I spent almost the entire film incredibly nervous. I don't usually enjoy that, but I have to hand it to a film that creates such a specific atmosphere so effectively.

The people in the town Curtis lives in start to look at him askance when he goes out of his way to expand the tornado shelter in his backyard. His dreams always start with storms, after all -- sometimes including flocks of birds that fly in strange formations. This is a huge undertaking, something no one but him thinks is necessary, and he even takes out a risky home improvement loan to do it. There's a startlingly effective scene where he's at a public lunch with many townspeople and he goes a little berserk, shouting that he isn't crazy and finally completely losing sight of the fact that he's acting crazier than ever.

The mystery, of course, is whether Curtis is actually on to something, or if he really is just going nuts. I think maybe I could have done without that final shot that fundamentally answers that question -- but then opens the door to a slew of new questions that don't get addressed -- because sometimes it's best to let things remain a mystery. But that's a minor quibble, and honestly a very effective discussion point for anyone having just seen it. In the end, Take Shelter is by turns quietly horrifying and uncomfortably gripping. That certainly makes it stand apart: this could not be said of a lot of movies.

take shelter

Overall: A-
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