The horror genre has been in steady decline in Hollywood for years. For all the gruesome Saw and Hostel films of recent times, the last great frightener produced stateside may well be The Silence of the Lambs, or even The Shining. Jeff Nichols’s latest film, however, offers a glimmer of hope. Take Shelter may not be perfect, but it could also be the best psychological horror to come out of America in a decade.
Or it would be, if it was a horror film. The problem is that Take Shelter is far too many things to easily confine it within one genre. It manages to be at once a gritty kitchen sink drama, a portrait of Midwestern American life, a richly metaphorical yarn and, at moments, utterly terrifying. It is tribute to the skills of Nichols as both writer and director that the film never seems like it is trying to be too many things. It is simply a gripping tale, beautifully filmed and impeccably acted.
The story is of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a young husband and father in Ohio living the archetypal small town life, working in the building trade and supporting his family. All seems well, until Curtis’s dreams become plagued by dark visions. At first it is thick, yellow rain that engulfs the town. Before long Curtis wakes every morning having seen enormous tornados, zombified townsfolk and above all a storm; an apocalyptic maelstrom that will destroy all in its wake. Driven to paranoia and fantasy, Curtis is ostracised by his neighbours, his friends and, finally, his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). Curtis plunges himself in a mad frenzy, losing his job and all shred of local respect as he builds a refuge in his garden to keep his family safe as the “storm” approaches; to take shelter.
It is these dreams that provide many of the shocks that make the film terrifying, but the tension that courses through the film is even more foreboding. Every shot is sinister, the motif of a storm present constantly as darkness drapes every image. The weather is overcast and the cinematography gloomy – there is little joy to be found anywhere at all. Even the pleasant family home is transformed into a claustrophobic prison for LaForche’s family as they battle his violent mood swings.
On a tiny budget Nichols delivers not only a richly vivid film, but a superbly acted one. Chastain has been the revelation of Hollywood this year, but her role as the loving Samantha, driven to despair by her husband’s seeming insanity is one of her most challenging, and is delivered with aplomb. Likewise Shea Whigham excels as Curtis’s simple,
Indeed, it would have been easy to turn this film into a character study of a man gone mad, but Shannon makes Curtis much more than that. Somehow we empathise with him. It is not his visions that repulse us, rather the reaction to them by those around him. Simple,
The storm itself is richly symbolic, and can be interpreted as anything from a comment on the economic crisis to a homage to Camus’s The Plague. It seems more apt however, and a great deal less pretentious, to suggest it simply serves as a tool to point out society’s inability to face uncomfortable truths. As the evidence piles up that Curtis may not be as paranoid as we had assumed, it becomes more and more clear that it is the willingly naïve townsfolk who are the villains of the piece. The madness is not Curtis’s – it belongs to those who refuse to open their eyes and see the coming storm.
Take Shelter is a wonderful film that challenges not only the monotony of modern Hollywood horror films, but also the very fabric of the cosy American life itself.
Take Shelter is in cinemas now.