Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” has, surprisingly, a lot in common with Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Both are films in which the protagonist struggles to deal with mental illness, while the people around them aren’t very sympathetic or helpful: in both films, their friends and family don’t want them to manage the illness, they want the illness to be gone, and their impatience and lack of compassion just makes things harder. Also, both films are, in unconventional ways, about the end of the world.
In “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon plays a southern family man – the strong, silent type – who starts having visions/hallucinations about a gathering storm, the Grandaddy of all storms. There’s a painful history of mental illness in his family, so he fears that something’s going awry in his head. Determined to care for his family whatever the situation, but afraid to worry them with what he is seeing, he begins seeking medical help, but at the same time expanding and equipping the storm shelter in his back yard.
Michael Shannon does an incredible job of communicating his character without many words. It’s hard to even say what he does, except “communicate” – an aura, a mood, a feeling. Through gestures, stares, postures. This is great acting. We see clearly: here is a man who keeps his own counsel, even from his wife, not out of selfishness or lack of trust, but because he believes it is his responsibility to “do his business” without asking for help or burdening anyone else with his challenges or problems.
Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife, is less good. She has had a great run this year, appearing and impressing in a number of movies. But here she is good in spots — she generally nails the big scenes — but thin in others. It might be because she is acting opposite Shannon, who is incredibly talented at communicating a lot with a little. But her character never feels as fleshed out as his does. We need to see a woman who knows what she got into when she married this man – he’s not going to communicate much, but he’s going to consistently do the right thing, and that’s why she can love and trust and live with him. Instead, she comes across as a family manager, bouncing between telling him what he needs to do next (be home showered and dressed by 6pm so we can leave for the parent-teacher conference) and yelling at him for not explaining to her what’s going on with him. This is not a guy who’s going to explain what’s going on with him. Working with a script that takes its plausibility seriously, and an actor who really makes his character come alive, Chastain’s performance feels thin and unconvincing.
This is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ second collaboration with Michael Shannon, and it’s easy to see why the two stick together. It feels a bit like De Niro and Scorsese in the ’70s; here’s an actor that can communicate a director’s vision almost flawlessly. Nichols impressively captures the rhythm and textures of a small, blue-collar Southern town; one of the pleasures of “Take Shelter” is its small-town rhythms counterbalances with a growing sense of impending doom. On the flip side, there’s a twist in the last five minutes of the film – after everything seems to be resolved – that comes out of nowhere. It really could be a great twist, but it lacks the necessary foreshadowing; the film presents itself as clearly, definitely about one thing, then, the eleventh hour, becomes about something else. It’s really too bad. If we, the audience had spent more of the movie living in the tension, uncertain which way the wind was going to blow, “Take Shelter” would’ve been a better movie. It’s a good movie as it is, for sure. But the ending lacks.