BFI London Film Festival 2011: ‘Take Shelter’


Screening at this year’s 55th BFI London Film Festival, Take Shelter (2011) once again unites Shotgun Stories (2007) director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. Set against a backdrop of Middle American domestic life, Take Shelter is a far more visual film, combining elements of terror with a kitchen sink drama that confirms both men as masters of their chosen trade.

Plagued by a series of dramatically visual and harrowing nightmares, Curtis (Shannon) can’t decide whether his dreams of an impending disastrous storm are prophetic or rather the beginnings of an inherent slide into madness. His mother, who’s now housed in sheltered accommodation, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at roughly the same age Curtis is now, leading him to the conclusion that he’s destined to the same fate. He has a comfortable life, earning enough through his career in construction to support both his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his adorable, deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). However, as his visions begin to creep into his waking hours he faces a difficult decision as to whether to shelter his family from the coming storm or himself.

Take Shelter is beautifully shot, showcasing the blossoming talent of Nichols, as an exciting young filmmaker to watch out for. Standout performance by Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon add gravitas to an exceptionally tight script which successfully captures the domestic ties which underpin this seemingly apocalyptic themed drama. Shannon masterfully portrays his characters mental instability through numerous longing stares into the middle distance, which hypnotically draws you into Curtis’s unstable world of nightmarish visions and growing paranoia.

Taking on an issue as sensitive as schizophrenia was always going to be difficult. Appearing to sensationalise a serious illness for entertainment’s sake could have ruined the film before it even had a chance to get going. Whilst Take Shelter may not handle its delicate subject matter with as much restraint as many would have hoped from such a seriously focused thriller, it soon becomes apparent that Curtis’ situation is less about his escalating condition but more about the effects his symptoms have on a close knit family unit. Indeed, Take Shelter is not so much a film about an apocalypse or the trauma caused by a debilitating disease but rather the comforting emotional blanket a family’s love can offer.

A refreshing answer to the special effects laden disaster films of Hollywood, Take Shelter’s focus on the devastating ripples of mental illness on a family household may not be perfect but it certainly hasn’t hindered the reputations of both its stellar cast and promising director.

For more BFI London Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble