Michael Shannon is Curtis, the small-town construction worker who begins to have visions of a gathering storm. His wife, Samantha, is played by Jessica Chastain; an actress with the great gift, a star’s gift, of embodying ordinariness whilst looking exceedingly beautiful. They have a deaf daughter, Hannah, whom they both love. Money’s tight; the cost of providing Hannah with the special needs education and treatment she needs is a strain; but they are a happy family.
When Curtis’ visions begin, the good life that was once the envy of their friends starts to unravel. Because he sees a gathering storm, he begins to build a shelter his family. But in the process of building a physical refuge against what the future might hold, he threatens the security of his present home, not only the house but also that emotive and affective idea of home that anchors Curtis’ sense of self and gives his life meaning.
Curtis’ source of income, his place in the community and his hold on the affections of those he love, all come under threat. In order to build the shelter he first takes out an expensive loan that puts the family home at risk; then he ‘borrows’ equipment without permission from his work which results in his losing his job; later, he even begins to have visions that the wife he loves and who we are shown loves him is going to carve him with a knife.
Are his visions real or are they due to the mental illness his mother suffered from? Curtis’ mother left him and his brother in a car when he was ten and was later found scavenging for food in a garbage dump in another state. She was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and is now living in assisted accommodation. Curtis is worried the same thing might happen to him and it’s shattering his nerves because, in the light of his past, his vow and lodestar has been to never abandon his own family.
Is he going crazy? The film renders the ambiguous relation of his visions to reality beautifully through use of point-of-view and almost biblical imagery of the apocalypse: birds dying, clouds gathering, strong winds gathering force, storms approaching. But is it really all in his mind? The agony of Michael Shannon’s face as he ponders this question, and of Chastain’s looks at Shannon whilst he undergoes doubt, are very evocative and seem immediately understandable. But these scenes also lend themselves to different interpretations and thus different answers to the question. It’s a richly textured film.
The ending is a weakness; it makes some of the earlier plot befuddling. The film might have been truly great had it had the strength of its convictions and remained a study of schizophrenia rather than end up on the edges of a sci-fi apocalypse; it raises many interesting questions but perhaps need not have raised so many or at least provided more answers to at least some.
Taking Shelter nonetheless reveals a director with insight into the relations amongst men and between men and women; and one with a great feel for small-town life, for character interiority and for poetic imagery. I found it touching and beautiful.