I come to you as a contrarian. As of the writing of this review Take Shelter has a huge 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve heard many people say that they think it’s the best movie of the year. I don’t think it’s usually productive to take other reviews into account when writing about a movie, but I feel like in this case it’s fair to tell you that my take on Take Shelter is in the exceptional minority.
Usually when I find myself in that position - whether it be a movie I like more than most of my peers, or hate more than most of my peers - I can understand why there’s a chasm. I can understand the opinions of those on the other side. With Take Shelter I cannot for the life of me understand from where the love comes.
I didn’t just dislike Take Shelter, I actively hated it. Watching the film was a punishing experience of tedium, a slow motion descent into irritation. Handsomely shot, well acted and shocking empty of any real drama, Take Shelter is, frankly, a fucking bore.
Michael Shannon plays a man who thinks he may be going insane. Casting Shannon as a guy who might be going insane is like casting Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining; ie it doesn’t seem like The Overlook has to do too much to bring Mr. Torrance over to the crazy side. Same for Shannon who, with his bugged eyes and twitchy face, has done some great work in the past as unbalanced or creepy guys.
His insanity has a specific form; he has begun dreaming of a coming storm that creates thick yellow rain and makes people go crazy. These nightmares feel just as real as his waking life, and while he suspects he’s sliding into schizophrenia - the illness that got his mother committed when he was 10 - he also can’t help but begin work on a backyard shelter designed to protect his family from this possibly pending apocalypse.
The movie then runs in repetitive circles from there. The script repeats itself endlessly - the fact that Shannon’s mother is schizophrenic is established time and time again. His daughter is deaf, a fact the film imparts to us with thudding regularity, with sign language practice as well as plenty of talk about insurance for cochlear implants to correct her deafness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols passes up no opportunity to give us the same information multiple times.
Which wouldn’t be such a problem if the film escalated in any noticeable way. Shannon’s obsession with the shelter is at about the same level when he starts it as when he finishes it. Watching the film I kept thinking about Richard Dreyfuss falling into obsession in Close Encounters, shown in a series of escalating scenes where he fixates on the outline of Devil’s Tower, going from a drawing to a huge dirt model in his living room. Take Shelter escalates Shannon’s obsession in a scene where… he takes out a home improvement loan that even his loan officer thinks is a bad idea. It’s not quite as cinematic as what Spielberg accomplished.
And so about thirty minutes into Take Shelter I felt like I had really, really “gotten” it. But the film kept going, looping over the same stuff and staying at about the same level of tension (ie, fairly little, unless you find Shannon talking on the phone to his doctor about finding a psychiatrist to be gripping). The dream sequences are good, and during the first one I thought Take Shelter was going to win me over; I suffer from pretty spectacular nightmares, and they’re often very similar to what Shannon experiences in the movie, with people standing at the window and trying to get into my house. But even those dreams become repetitive, showing us the same stuff again and again and again.
And here I must get into some slight spoiler territory, so be warned. The film grinds along for about two hours, and as it mercifully approaches the end you know there are three possible conclusions: he’s crazy, he’s right or the film won’t tell you either way. I decided that I thought the ‘ambiguous’ ending would be the most infuriating, but then the actual ending came and I was pretty much enraged. Nichols had taken two hours to pull off a silly irony twist that the Twilight Zone could have pulled off - with more impact - in twenty minutes. It’s worth noting that I’m approaching the ending from a very literal point of view, and that there are metaphorical aspects of it that could engage others. I was unable to care about the film’s thematic elements because by the end they were stretched out like prisoners on the rack. You can boil all the taste out of something, after all.
Michael Shannon gives a good performance, as does the suddenly omnipresent Jessica Chastain as his wife. They have a great chemistry, and I kept wishing the movie would give them something more to tear into; the ‘drama’ of Shannon being late for a family lunch because he was stocking up on canned goods doesn’t have the depth to let these actors play.
Playing like the excruciatingly long first act of a better movie, Take Shelter long overstays its welcome while confusing narrative indolence for tension. If you’re looking for the rare movie that dares to expose the tedium of slowly going insane, Take Shelter is the movie for you.