Jeff Nichols’ tense drama Take Shelter begins with a startling, apocalyptic vision. Darkened clouds gather on the horizon, gathering for what looks to be the storm of the century. Curtis (the appropriately disturbed-looking Michael Shannon), stands in his driveway and wipes the first oily drops of rain from his hands. When he wakens from this dream, the first questions that come to mind—Why is the rain oily? and How did the storm get so large?—are, interestingly, not questions the film is interested in. Rather, another question serves to draw the viewer in: Is Curtis seeing a vision of the future or is he losing his grip on reality? Or to put it another way: Is Curtis a prophet or is he mad?
Nichols builds the tension admirably throughout the film, refraining from overwriting the piece and instead letting the stillness and the experiences themselves set the tone and advance the straightforward plot. Curtis has a series of visions through the film, and as each gets progressively more intense, he seems to draw nearer either to enlightenment or utter breakdown. The tension over this question is fascinating, and Nichols raises the stakes when Curtis begins to build out the storm shelter in his backyard. Now as concrete resources and time begin to drain the family’s resources, the strain is unmistakable. Can the people Curtis lives with and cares for the most really stand by and watch him sink the life of his family on what looks to them a whim.
As the film carefully builds this dramatic core, we come to see that the question of Curtis’ mental state informs another issue that stands at the heart of the film. Essentially, Take Shelter is a character-driven piece, looking closely at the ties that bind a family together through the most trying times. And whether the trying time is a coming storm or the onset of schizophrenia or some other mental disease, the film is more interested in the way the family responds to the trials that beset them than it is in ferreting out the source or meaning of the visions.
The film builds to a beautiful climax as the family is forced to wait out a real life mid-western storm in the newly built out shelter. The imagery in the scene is laced with the hopeful notion of life after death. And if the film had ended on this note, it likely would have been a favorite of the year. Instead, it continues, moving to a Shyamalan-like finale that breaks the complex tension Nichols had worked so hard to build. Many have responded positively to that final sequence, but for me the film ends on a frustrating note—what was so close to greatness falters in its final moments.