Due to the drawn-out process of filmmaking, mainstream cinema is often relatively slow to react to significant real world events. It took over ten years for Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) to reach cinemas following the end of the Vietnam War, and the same delayed response can also be seen in regards to the global economic crisis. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011) – starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain – is one of the most innovative approaches to this hugely topical subject to date.
The film follows hands-on labourer Curtis (Shannon), seemingly contented with his suburban lot alongside wife Samantha (Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). However, it isn’t long until Curtis starts experiencing apocalyptic visions of impending doom, ranging from violent attacks by crowds of faceless assailants to full-blown, tumultuous and bizarre weather formations on the not-too-distant horizon. Terrified by the seemingly inevitable coming storm, Curtis turns to a series of evermore drastic measures in order to protect his young family.
Even those least affected by the economic downturn should find at least something to identify with in Take Shelter, and in particular the character of Curtis, played superbly by the always impressive Shannon. Despite pre-viewing impressions, the film is solely concerned with the inner, emotional stress and turmoil that the threat of financial instability is currently having on not only middle America, but the majority of Western civilisation, and Shannon’s Curtis is the perfect everyman, beset on all sides by financial and psychological strife.
Alongside Shannon, Chastain is ever-watchable as Curtis’ concerned spouse, effortlessly shifting from softly-spoken confident to protective mother as her husband’s mental and economic health worsens. The central nuclear family is the lifeblood of the film, with every action undertaken by Hannah’s mother and father weighted down with inevitable repercussions, both positive and negative.
The one major flaw of the film is that Nichol’s does perhaps play too heavily on the ‘is he crazy/isn’t he crazy’ shifting dynamic, relating to his mental well-being. A misjudged final scene does undo some of the director’s careful character construction, and seems to have been designed purely to invoke an out-of-place, Inception-style head-scratching reaction to the film’s knowingly-ambiguous finale.
Despite a bungled finish, with Take Shelter Nichols has succeeded in creating one of the most engaging American responses to the global economic crisis, and in the character of Curtis, provides us with one of this year’s most sympathetic protagonists.