One thing we can all agree on is that Michael Shannon is at his best when he’s playing intense characters. I almost wrote that he’s an intense guy. Maybe he’s not ultra-intense in person, but it’s hard to imagine that his on-screen personae aren’t indicative of his real life disposition. And it’s that ultra-intensity that makes for some very memorable characters. Whether you loved or hated (or ignored) Bug, he was amazing (bonkers) in that film. That performance was a thing of beauty. He was certainly one of the few tolerable things about Man of Steel. Take Shelter portrays Shannon’s intensity in the most relatable ways yet. The quiet paranoia of the film shows audiences how an everyman (like me!) can become a singularly obsessed doomsayer (not a black metal band, a person who predicts calamity).
Curtis is a working-class family man in a podunk Midwest town. He begins having vivid dreams of an apocalyptic brown rain and ominous swarms of birds. (i know they’re called flocks but these are swarmy) The dreams encroach on his waking hours and he starts to believe they are a portent of things to come. As the scope of the dreams gets broader, he becomes increasingly convinced that his family is in real danger. Protecting his wife and daughter from the intangible, nebulous harm becomes an obsession to the detriment of his personal relationships with friends and his wife. To make matters worse, he’s worried that he’s losing his sanity since he has a family history of mental illness. His paranoia reaches its breaking point when he’s fired for using company equipment without permission to build an underground bunker/(brown rain) storm shelter. His whole life is turning to shit because of his (possibly) insane visions. Will his family fall apart because of it? Is he following in his mentally ill mother’s footsteps?
Take Shelter is a prime example of dread and paranoia done right. Curtis is a very sympathetic character. He can’t control his unfounded drive to take steps to protect his family from an imagined threat. He knows dreams are just dreams. He knows that his hallucinations can’t predict the future. But as the viewer, we understand why he can’t just sit back and tell himself to relax. His mind is urging him to take action. And the lives of his family may be on the line. (having a daughter drives this home particularly well for me) We can see that he’s losing his mind. HE can see that he’s losing his mind. But we want so badly for his final acts to be salvation for those he loves. If for nothing else, than for the redemption of a good man doing the best he can in harrowing (mentally) circumstances. The audience is placed at the forefront of Curtis’s struggle. As his reality shifts and warps, so does the narrative. We come to question our own perceptions. And that is where Take Shelter shines. Few films can take viewers on this type of ride while staying so firmly grounded in reality. You’ll find yourself caring deeply for Curtis and wishing that he had a way out of his hopeless situation.
The Final Cut: Take Shelter is a darkly dreadful drama with a supremely sympathetic man at its center. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as the intensely caring husband and father desperate to protect his family through his crumbling sanity.