Director and scriptwriter Jeff Nichols has, in his latest effort Take Shelter, committed to screen an expertly rendered depiction of mental illness. Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to suffer from horrifically realistic nightmares: in one dream, his beloved pet dog nearly chews through his arm, resulting in Curtis feeling pain in his arm the day after. These dreams continue to take on an increasingly terrifying quality; Curtis begins to believe that these dreams, which always start with a storm, herald a premonition of an epic storm. Spurred into action, Curtis begins to build, at huge expense, a storm shelter to protect his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his young deaf daughter.
Despite Curtis’ belief in these apparitions, his schizophrenic mother and thus his own fear of mental illness causes him to question his own sanity. Reading up on the symptoms of schizophrenia, Curtis informs the counsellor he has met with, that he currently only exhibits two of the five signs – hallucinations and delusions.
The validity of Curtis’ hallucinations are secondary here, instead Nichols’ film is at its best when Curtis’ visions are at their most vivid, which are at times truly frightening in their realisation. Nichols’ direction may be too languorous for some, but its slow-pacing is not only successful in creating narrative tension, but in turn makes the film’s ending all the more effective.
Take Shelter is beautifully executed, wonderfully shot and crafted. The cast is flawless: Chastain, providing excellent support, is brilliantly understated as Curtis’ suffering yet understanding wife. Fearful of her husband’s apparent increasing mental instability, she remains ever faithful and trusting. Despite Chastain’s fine performance, there is little doubt that this is, at all times, Shannon’s film; he is careful to avoid straying into an overblown depiction, instead ensuring that Curtis retains the viewer’s empathy and understanding.