"Take Shelter": An Indie Disaster Movie Visions of Apocalypse

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by Joost Broeren

“I still take off my boots so I don’t wake her up,” says Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) standing in the doorway of his deaf daughter Hannah’s bedroom. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) smiles, and whispers back: “I still whisper.” It’s a relatively minor moment in Jeff Nichols’ sophomore feature Take Shelter, which for most of its runtime occupies itself with a much grander apocalyptic canvas. But the scene highlights the small-scale foundation on which this larger-than-life tale rests: the love and support a family can and should offer. The film was shown in the Semaine de la Critique, where it would ultimately win both the main jury prize and the FIPRESCI Award.

The larger apocalyptic canvas comes courtesy of the visions of impending doom that visit Curtis in his dreams, each time warning of an oncoming storm. His first dream is also the film’s first scene. Curtis stands on the porch of his small-town white-picket-fence house, looking at the sky. A yellow, oily rain starts falling — a harbinger of the storm that gathers on the horizon in threatening clouds, dark and unnaturally formed. Subsequent dreams are even more haunting, so vivid and real that they start working their way into Curtis’ day-to-day life: when the family dog attacks him in an early dream, his arm hurts for a week and the dog gets locked in a cage in the garden.

Curtis’ ill-defined but all-too-real sense of dread quickly permeates every aspect of his life, from his relationship with Samantha to his job at a local quarry. And it leads him to obsessively start work on the derelict storm shelter in his garden, all the while questioning his own sanity — especially considering his family history: his mother has been living in a mental hospital since Curtis was a teenager.

In Take Shelter’s haunting dream sequences, writer/director Nichols (Shotgun Stories) plays with the esthetic of Hollywood disaster movies — whether it’s in attacks of zombie-like creatures that populate the post-apocalyptic landscapes or an impressive science fiction moment when the furniture floats free from the floor. These visual references are no accident: Nichols has something to say about our modern-day culture of fear, of which the Hollywood films he alludes to are an integral part.

But they are far from alone. Indeed, the LaForche family is surrounded by such fearmongering, as we all are these days. When Curtis visits a psychologist in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to deal with his nightmares, a poster on the wall warns of the N1H1-bacteria. The television newscasts are filled with alarming reports. “Are you hearing this?” an obviously worried Curtis asks Samantha; she answers indifferently with a distracted, “It’s awful” never taking her eyes off the book she is reading.

But such distractions can’t offer a lasting solution, Nichols seems to suggest, just as Curtis’ attempts to stifle his nightmares with sedatives are fruitless. In the end, it’s family that can offer the only real sense of hope. In that sense, Take Shelter offers an interesting companion piece to Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world film (shown in the main competition) which got rather snowed under by its creator’s misplaced and well-publicized comments. Where Melancholia, in all its marvelously overblown glory, approached earth’s end through the juxtaposition of nature and civilization, Nichols focuses on the duality between society and the family unit.

This opposition comes to a head in the film’s nearly perfect climactic moments, when Curtis, Samantha and Hannah are holed up in the storm shelter and Samantha has to talk her husband down from the brink of desperation. It’s a devastating and poignant scene, perfectly written and acted to perfection by both Shannon (with the eyes of a man possessed) and Chastain (with a palpably restrained desperation). Although Nichols perhaps takes his story a few scenes too far to wrap up his argument, this central scene alone earns the film all the praise that it will undoubtedly get.