Whether you want to place the blame on the willfully vague predictions of Nostradamus (who should be known hereafter as “Nostra-dumbass”), the specious reckoning of Mayan timekeeping, or even Roland Emmerich’s catastrophe porn 2012, it’s inarguable that a whiff of apocalypse is in the air. Witness the number of recent films preoccupied with the end of the world as we know it: There have been, to name only a few, Lars von Trier’s lugubrious endgame Melancholia, Evan Glodell’s scorching Bellflower, and Jeff Nichols’s domestic doomsday device Take Shelter. Where the spectacle of worlds colliding provides von Trier with his money shot, and Glodell charts varieties of mutually assured destruction arising from romantic meltdown, Nichols takes a more low-key approach by welding flashes of impending CG doom to a slow-burning tale of marital estrangement and mounting paranoia.
Following up the writer-director’s impressive debut, Shotgun Stories, which was produced under the tutelage of David Gordon Green before he withdrew into a sativa-scented purple haze, Take Shelter reunites Nichols with lead actor Michael Shannon, who plays Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar worker and family man besieged by terrifying nightmares. Struggling already to cope with daughter Hannah’s (Tova Stewart) hearing loss, Curtis only compounds the multiple stress fractures in his marriage to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) when he starts acting on these bad dreams. For starters, he slaps together a pen for his beloved pooch after a dream in which the dog attacks him as a cataclysmic storm approaches. After that, it becomes increasingly difficult for Curtis to differentiate between reality and whatever it is he’s experiencing. He cringes from lightning and thunder nobody else hears, experiences rain falling viscous as oil, and witnesses birds plummeting out of the sky. As it happens, Curtis has cause for concern. At his age, his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to an institution, a fact the film divulges only after establishing the nature of Curtis’s distress. For much of its running time, the film keeps open the question whether Curtis’s increasingly disturbing visions are merely symptomatic of the disease’s onset or actually serve some premonitory function. In its haunting final moments, Take Shelter will provide a definite answer, albeit one ambiguous enough to leave room for doubt and conjecture.
When Curtis impulsively decides to give the backyard storm shelter an extreme makeover, he ropes best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) into the scheme. Borrowing equipment from work ends up getting Curtis fired, and borrowing money against his mortgage (a risky proposition even his banker advises him against) gets him in even more hot water with Samantha. At points like these, as well as in scenes that show Curtis visiting a counselor at the free clinic because he can’t afford a full-fledged psychiatrist, Nichols cannily taps into contemporary economic tensions and fears that have metastasized into phenomena like the Occupy movement. Although they provide significant subtext, social matters aren’t at the heart of Take Shelter. That belongs to the fraying bond between Curtis and Samantha, a situation that reaches its apotheosis when an actual storm forces the family into their refurbished subterranean shelter.
Sony's 1080p transfer of Take Shelter is practically pristine. From the seamlessly integrated CG storm cells to the mundane bric-a-brac of the LaForche family home, colors are bold and bright, textures are well defined, and details are impeccably rendered. Black levels are deep and dense, especially during scenes in the storm shelter that were lit by a single lantern. The lossless Master Audio track surrounds you with ominous cracks of thunder, drenches you in rain, and buffets you with wind, while at the same time keeping the dialogue clear and well-centered, and conveying the full range of David Wingo's score, so essential to the viewing experience, as it morphs from industrial drone to chiming and lullaby-like and back again.
Suitably low-key and often wryly amusing, writer-director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon provide a laconic, anecdotal commentary track that hits all the expected highlights of conception and production. Of particular interest: the quasi-autobiographical impetus behind the story, shooting on location in northern Ohio, and the pains and pleasures of working with local actors, a deaf child actress, and a dog who only "spoke" German. The two play off each other well, and, overall, I'd say it's worth a listen. Now and then, Shannon amuses himself by glossing Curtis's unspoken thoughts and motivations, and Nichols fills in some of the back story that would've been explained in scenes that either were never shot, or were subsequently edited out.
Two of the those deleted scenes are included as extras. The first is a brief, terse confrontation between Curtis and Sam that would've taken place after his older brother's visit. The other is Curtis's longer, chattier second visit to the counselor played by Lisa Gay Hamilton. At her prompting, Curtis lays out his life philosophy in some detail. It's a sturdy, intriguing scene; it's also a good thing Nichols cut it, as it's far too explicit and conclusive about matters the finished film prefers to leave open.
Also included are a 10-minute behind the scenes featurette, which touches on matters discussed more fully on the commentary (though it's your only chance to see Jessica Chastain discuss her involvement with the film), and a 20-minute Q&A with Shannon and costar Shea Whigham shot at a SAG Foundation meeting. Discussion includes their numerous collaborations after meeting on Joel Schumacher's Tigerland (most recent being Boardwalk Empire), with particular emphasis, naturally enough, on two scenes in Take Shelter: a drunken late-night curbside confab and the climactic confrontation at the Lion's Club supper. Altogether, it's not much of a Q&A, since only three questions are asked and answered near the end of the proceedings, but if you happen to be interested in listening to actors discuss their craft, then you'll probably want to take it in.
Sony releases one of the best films of 2011, Jeff Nichols's haunting Take Shelter, in a fantastic Blu-ray transfer, rounded out with some satisfying special features.