There are a lot of parallels between Take Shelter and the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, A Serious Man. Both have a lead male character who feels like he’s losing his grip on life. Both men feel a sense of impending doom. And both have weird nightmares that haunt them throughout. But, where A Serious Man is a wry look at the impossibility of controlling the ways of the universe, Take Shelter is an incredibly dark and emotional look at mental illness.
Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as a working class family man who begins having ominous dreams about storms and animals and people attacking him and his daughter. These dreams begin to take a toll on his mental state, until it’s revealed that he has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia. As the film goes on, he starts working to expand his backyard storm shelter to protect him from the storm in his dreams. All the while, he is trying to get psychological help and keep his family from falling into disarray.
Everything in the film hinges on Michael Shannon’s absolutely spectacular performance. He is incredibly quiet, but also seething with anger and frustration and fear. At one point he has a huge outburst, and the power in his performance and dialogue was so intense that a member of the audience audibly gasped. Watching Shannon succumb to mental illness is truly stunning.
Director Jeff Nichols also does the material right by building that sense of dread and paranoia to an extremely uncomfortable degree. Throughout it all, though, Nichols still keeps a focused eye on the real effects of Shannon’s actions, making us feel for this working guy who is throwing his family into emotional and financial turmoil. Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife in the film, does an excellent job of grounding the sad reality of the situation.
Take Shelter is an amazing film. It basically took my breath away, with an ending that had me practically hyperventilating. Michael Shannon is amazing, in a role that deserves to win every award possible, and the film overall is carefully and perfectly directed for maximum effectiveness.