In the opening scene of Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ stunning 2011 sci-fi, a man gazes skyward at some dark and scary clouds. Lightning flickers within, before a dark liquid begins to rain down on top of him. Little do we know, but the man, a local miner called Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), is about to enter a living nightmare.
It’s a moment that film fans love all over the world – and, after storming the French Riviera at Cannes Film Festival in May, arrived on UK shores exactly 10 years ago this week. Take Shelter director Nichols had only made one film before (2008 thriller Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon), but along with a talented cast including rising star Jessica Chastain, he crafted a slow-burn thriller that’s one of the decade’s best films.
“I have a real soft spot for that one,” Shannon tells NME over the phone, in a conversation arranged to celebrate the movie’s anniversary. “I felt the same way when I read Shotgun Stories – that I was reading the work of a very singular artist, who was writing in a manner that was completely unique to him and that no-one else could come close to.”
In the film, we see a happy family unit living ordinary lives. There’s Curtis, of course, his wife Samantha (Chastain), and their deaf daughter Hannah – played by young Tova Stewart, straight out of the Ohio School For the Deaf. But when Curtis is plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, his sense of reality starts to erode – and everything begins to go wrong.
Shannon, now best-known for Oscar-winner The Shape of Water, remembers thinking his character’s troubles were very much a product of modern life. “Most people seem to think it’s a movie about mental illness, which it never was to me,” he says, before referencing Curtis’ mum, who developed paranoid schizophrenia at a similar age. “The whole thing with the mother… I hate to use the concept of someone’s mental illness as a red herring because it’s a very serious thing, but the fundamental question that Take Shelter poses is: how can anybody in their right mind stay sane in a world like this? Particularly if you are responsible for other people and you know that, at the end of the day, you cannot protect them from what is coming.”
As Curtis’ grows less and less stable, he begins building a shelter in the backyard. He’s determined to protect Samantha and their daughter from a coming storm, but his actions cause tension within the marriage as well as their surrounding community.
Chastain – who is now one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors, but in 2011 plied her trade mainly on TV – says Shannon’s performance is the “most beautiful work of his career.”
“Listen, he’s one of our greatest actors and I strongly stand by that,” she says down the phone to NME. “There’s something about Mike… I feel like I see him. I know him in a way that maybe most people look beyond or look away from.
“He’s a big guy, and so intense that our industry tends to put him in really intimidating parts, because they like to play on his physicality. But I know that he is the most – he’ll probably hate me for saying this – I believe he’s the most fragile, sensitive soul in our industry.
“When you get beyond the exterior, the intensity, and you actually see what’s there… he’s so beautiful, sensitive and open. And that’s why I think his work as Curtis in Take Shelter is one of the best performances captured on film, period.”
In another standout scene, Curtis goes on a rant in a cafeteria, warning the townsfolk of their impending doom: “Sleep well in your beds, because if this thing comes true, there ain’t gonna be any more!” Reduced to a whimper, he’s then escorted away by his family.
Despite those moments of explosive action, you could say that Take Shelter actually revolves around a quiet love story. Chastain agrees. “[Curtis] is struggling and they feel like they’re out to sea in some way. [But] It’s the faith in the partnership, the faith in the person and their goodness [that keeps everything going].
“He’s way too afraid to tell her [about his visions] because he’s afraid she’s not going to love him [anymore]. He’s also afraid that he might [end up] like his mother. To me, it’s a lot about unconditional love and facing great obstacles united.”
Shannon’s biggest takeaways from Take Shelter are more to do with its director, and what he learned from him about storytelling. “It’s told with a beautiful discipline,” he says. “It was a very quick shooting schedule and there were days where we really struggled to get what we needed, but we always did.”
The two have collaborated four more times since – on gold rush drama Mud; another sci-fi Midnight Special; against-the-odds romance Loving; and kids podcast Hank The Cowdog – but Chastain is still waiting for Nichols’ next call-up, though they remain friends.
“I hope to work with him again,” says Chastain. “I love him. I’m always teasing him about female characters. I’m like: ‘Come on, you’ve gotta write me a female character – let’s do it, let’s do it!’ I’m so excited by his mind and his visual storytelling. Take Shelter is one of the best movies I’ve made. I think it’s a masterpiece.”
We won’t spoil the ending, but Curtis appears to be proved right – and a hellish cyclone is indeed seemingly closing in around them. Fans have been theorising for 10 years about the ambiguous final shot – can Shannon shed any light?
“I think the point at the end of the movie is that both things are true,” he says. “There is a storm coming but we’re also inevitably going to suffer some sort of trauma and be rendered a bit dysfunctional by the fact that this is on the horizon.” Chastain, meanwhile, says the film “asks more questions than it answers.” Either way, don’t expect a sequel.
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