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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011

Take Shelter

Nowhere to hide in tense, psychological thriller

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No one else notices the thunderclap from the cloudless sky, but for Curtis, the sharp retort rattles inside his head like nails in an empty tin can. And as he stares at the horizon across his backyard and over the abutting farm field, he sees clouds whirling into ominous formations no one can see, and feels an oily yellow rain falling onto his skin. Curtis is just an ordinary guy in an ordinary heartland town, but there's nothing normal about the things he experiences in Take Shelter.

The psychological thriller from writer-director Jeff Nichols is a gripping study in mounting anxiety and madness that leaves open the possibility that madness is sometimes the unsettling ability to see and hear beyond the surface of reality. Curtis (Michael Shannon) works for an excavating company; his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), earns extra money at weekend flea markets. Together, they maintain their small tract house and send their deaf little girl Hannah to special classes while saving for an operation to help restore her hearing. Samantha is a caring wife and mother with a resilient sense of self-respect. She knows something is gnawing inside Curtis even before he begins spending nights in the backyard in the old storm shelter, where a lamplight through the open slanted door forms a rectangle of pale orange against the darkness.

Curtis spends more and more time and money on the fool's errand of enlarging the shelter and provisioning it for the stormy catastrophe he fears is at hand. A reticent man, Curtis can't explain his reasoning to Samantha or his co-workers. He admits enough to his family physician to obtain medication and counseling at the local health center—all of it ineffectual. Curtis' mother succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia in her mid-30s, Curtis' own age, and her example weighs on his imagination. He believes he is delusional, yet the hallucinations are too vivid and the compulsion to build his shelter is too strong to deny. Curtis' obsession threatens his marriage, his job and his friendships. “I'm doing it for us,” he insists to Samantha.

Take Shelter
is a film of many strengths, including the acting, which brings the characters fully and roundly to life, and the special effects, which serve rather than overwhelm the story. The screenwriting might look minimal on paper, but it conjures up an entire community of families, church socials and Lions Club dinners against a backdrop of economic anxiety, health insurance problems and vague apocalyptic unease. The sound and cinematography are wonderful. Acutely aware of the shadows in nature and listening for the silences between ambient sounds, Take Shelter continually leads the eye upward toward the sky, which has come to terrify Curtis with its portents of disaster.

Opens Oct. 28 at the Oriental Theatre
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