In my review of The Road, I commented on our culture's fascination with the end of the world - a fascination which has produced a stream of science fiction and action movies which use the annihilation of our species to explore social and political issues. Eighty years after this trend started with the appropriately-titled End of the World, we now have Take Shelter, a haunting and slow-burning psychodrama which makes a far better case than The Road for being the great apocalyptic film for our time.
Like The Road, Take Shelter could be described as a slow-moving shaggy-dog story. It's 2 hours long and feels like it, but unlike The Road it nearly always uses the time widely. While John Hillcoat's film lacked a sense of escalation and eventually became repetitive, Jeff Nichols takes us through every single flinch of emotion in the right order, so that we know the characters inside out before the storm arrives. This is not a film which is waiting to rush headlong into the special effects - it wants to build and build so that it becomes about the people, not the punch-line.
The film draws on a number of entries in the apocalyptic thriller canon, some easier to spot than others. Nichols described it as being an indie take on the big-budget disaster movies of the 1990s, such as Twister and Deep Impact. He styled the film as being 90% indie drama and 10% special effects, while in these kinds of films it is normally the other way around (and a lot less indie). The first success of Take Shelter is the refreshing sense we get from watching real characters, whom we care about beyond any generic expectations.
The film also references to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, not only in the sequences involving birds attacking humans but in the inexplicable and intangible nature of the threat over which the characters have no control. You might also say that this is how The Happening would have turned out, had it been made by someone with brains and no ego. But by far the closest resemblance is to Michael Tolkin's little-seen The Rapture, which imagines what it would be like if the Biblical prophesies in Revelation were literally true. You won't find any seven seals, bowls of wrath or a Whore of Babylon in this film, but there is the same sense of a global, supernatural catastrophe which the world is too ignorant or frightened to acknowledge.
This resemblance is conveyed in the story's Biblical overtones. The film is on one level a retelling of Noah and the flood - a story of a man driven to build a great structure that will keep his family safe from the upcoming destruction of the world. Like Noah (and Sharon in The Rapture), Curtis' project is ridiculed by the locals, for whom spending money on doing up a tornado shelter must seem as stupid as building a boat miles from any ocean. When Darren Aronofsky's Noah arrives in 2014, this is the standard to which it will have to be compared.
As you might have gathered by now, Take Shelter departs from the disaster movies of Roland Emmerich and the like by actually using the disaster to represent something. This is not a film which is being made simply to cash in on all the nonsense surrounding Mayan prophecies or the revived interest in Nostradamus. The drama and trauma experienced by the characters reflects how we would react to an impending disaster as ordinary people, who do not conform to the conventions of action movies, and who cannot simply be divided into protagonists and obvious cannon fodder.
Take Shelter also has a decent amount of subtext about the current financial crisis. Nichols wrote the script in 2008, shortly after directing Shotgun Stories and around the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Not only are the central characters under a huge amount of financial strain, but the film positions Curtis as a Cassandra figure, representing the warnings about the housing bubble and sub-prime lending which went unheeded until it was too late. Jut as Gojira depicted a country reeling from nuclear war, so this film is about a man doing all he can to shelter his family from the crisis that will raise our financial system and society to the ground.
But for all its allegorical subtext, what really makes Take Shelter stick in your mind is the nuanced of its characters and the emotional turmoil they face. The film is a fable about devotion to one's family and sticking to your beliefs even if it means going against what seems best for those you love in the short term. The film is confident and mature enough to give us a protagonist whom we don't unequivocally back: we are still making up our mind over whether to trust Curtis right up until the moment when the yellow rain begins to fall again.
Curtis is an interesting character since we have complete emotional empathy for his cause and yet we never entirely trust him through the main part of the film. He isn't an antihero in the traditional sense, displaying no desire to rebel against society or mistreat his friends. Instead he is someone who treads the fine line between sanity and insanity, driven by his belief in what is right and his fears of becoming schizophrenic like his mother. The film gives us a great many reasons not to trust him, including this revelation - and yet we somehow go with him, believing the validity of his cause.
The film is grounded in the brilliant central performance of Michael Shannon, who is becoming the go-to actor for borderline deranged, edgy characters. Shannon is physically intimidating, with eyes that seem to look right through us: even the act of him saying that he's fine can put us on edge. But he is careful to rein this in, making us focus on his sense of tragedy, and his struggle to keep everything internalised so that he can focus on his plan without hurting his family.
Shannon is ably supported by Jessica Chastain, who was nominated for a Saturn Award for her performance. Whatever the merits of her work in The Tree of Life, Chastain seems to have more to work with here, with Nichols ensuring that her breakdowns don't feel choreographed or predictable. Special plaudits should also be given to Tova Stewart, who plays Curtis and Samantha's 6-year-old daughter and is also deaf in real life. Nichols called her one of the smartest child actors he'd met, and you never get the sense of her being manipulated to produce an emotional response.
Being a film about the end of the world, Take Shelter does involve a certain amount of special effects. Nichols is reserved in using them, but when it does become necessary to have birds attacking or furniture floating in slow-motion, he is careful to integrate it into the action. As with The Birds, we don't really notice too many technical shortcomings since we are so bound up with the fate of the characters to emotionally invest in anything else. We don't care about how well the birds are rendered or whether the waterspouts are accurate in size: all we care about is whether Curtis, Samantha and Hannah will get out alive.
Take Shelter is a great, haunting and thought-provoking film which reminds us of the potential that exists in stories about the end of the world. Shannon and Chastain's superb performances are matched by Nichols' strong screenwriting and direction, giving us a character study with depth and threat to counterpart the looming destruction of their world. Some viewers may balk at the running time, but those who stay will not be disappointed by one of the very best films of 2011.