Note: this is an edited version of my original review which I wrote after seeing Take Shelter at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. I have since seen the film a second time.
When Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) starts having dreams of impending doom - a gathering storm, rain like petrol, and mysterious people threatening his and his family's lives - it's not a copy of Understanding Your Dreams he checks-out from the local library but a copy of Understanding Mental Illness.
Curtis's mother (a brief but effective Kathy Baker) has been living in assisted care since being diagnosed with schizophrenia when Curtis was just 10, and he's always harboured the fear that the illness could be hereditary. But how to explain an arm, bitten by his dog in a dream, which aches for the rest of the day? Or awakening, barely able to breathe and with blood-stained sheets?
Much to the consternation of his wife (Jessica Chastain from Tree of Life) and young daughter, and bemusement of friends and neighbours, Curtis decides to renovate the disused tornado shelter in the backyard; stockpiling cans of food and buying gas masks in preparation for the mother of all storms he believes is coming. But is it coming or is Curtis slowly coming undone?
Director Jeff Nichols' second feature, after 2007's Shotgun Stories, which also starred Shannon, is an effective thriller albeit a little too much of a slow burn for my liking. Take Shelter is a two hour film and it feels like it, even on a second viewing. That isn't to say that it's dull or boring, but Nichols takes his sweet time in letting his story unfold and his protagonist unravel. Then again, that deliberate pacing helps Nichols establish a growing sense of paranoia and dread, mirrored perfectly in Michael Shannon's central performance.
Relatively unknown to mainstream audiences until his Oscar nomination for 2008's Revolutionary Road, in which he upstaged both Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Shannon has been building on his new found success by giving commanding turns in supporting roles (The Runaways and TV's Boardwalk Empire), and seizes the opportunity of a leading role here. In a just world, Shannon would be a serious contender for a Best Actor Oscar nomination this year.
Chastain is good, too, making the role of the supportive but impotent wife, Samantha, completely different from the vaguely similar role she played in Malick's film. You get the very strong sense that Chastain's character took her wedding vows of 'in sickness and in health' seriously.
Take Shelter impressed at Sundance earlier this year and then went on to Cannes, where it scored the Critics' Prize. Sony Pictures could well have a moderate hit on their hands should they take advantage of the film's critical acclaim as well as the passing similarities to the works of M. Night Shyamalan, a thinking person's The Happening if you will.
And I mean that with all due respect to Take Shelter and Nichols, for this up-and-coming director exhibits a command of mood and mystery which Shyamalan has tried and failed to recapture since The Sixth Sense (1999). I'll definitely be going back to check out Shotgun Stories, whilst waiting in anticipation for what Jeff Nichols does next.