It’s funny, you wait years for an apocalyptic arthouse film then two turn up within months of each other. While Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia took a metaphorical approach to the genre, using the impending disaster as a symbol of the protagonists mental illness, Take Shelter opts for a more literal route. In Jeff Nichols’ second feature, a white collar family man, played by Michael Shannon, is beset by terrifying apocalytic visions.
These nightmarish visions strike at the heart of his existence, as his genteel Texas home and family are tormented by vicious storms, accidents and violence. In the real world, Shannon struggles to distinguish between fact and fiction and he drags his work and family into his own personal struggle.
Nichols’ makes pains to establish the solid family foundations, his loving wife played by Jessica Chastain, adding another strong performance to a stellar year, and his deaf daughter. Shannon holds down a steady, macho job as a foreman, and his friend even tells him, ‘You’ve got a real good life’. So the film is all set up for the inevitable breakdown, which Nichols’ unfolds in a steady fashion.
Take Shelter is a solid but ultimately unspectacular film that conjures strong performances out of the two main leads, with Shannon now close to perfecting the ‘man on the edge’ character. The film suffers in the same way that Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories did. That tale of two warring families was heavy on atmosphere and brooding machismo, but was weighed down by a thin, literal plot. There seems to be little going on beneath the surface, and while that is not necessarily a killer, the story is often too predictable to work just on visceral thrills.
The film is saved somewhat towards the end, with an electric public meltdown from Shannon and a gripping, stormy crescendo. Unfortunately this is an infrequent strong note in a film that is typified by the CGI visions, a serviceable but crude set of creations.