Hollywood has a new Nichols to laud

The calm before the storm quite aptly describes the opening of this understated and intense indie offering from director Jeff Nichols.

Curtis and his wife Samantha stand in the doorway of their daughter’s room watching her sleep. They muse over the fact that they’re still whispering despite her deafness – clearly a recent reality that they have yet to come to terms with. The scenes that follow further establish this family’s typically rural, working-class Ohio existence, in which lumberjack-shirted, pickup truck-driving Curtis toils relentlessly to provide for his family, while his wife religiously scrambles eggs (and her mind) every morning, gossips with the neighbours in the afternoon, and runs a stall to earn a little extra for the family pot on weekends.

Then, as the ominously rumbling heavens close in over Curtis one day, one gets a sense that a shift in this white picket fenced, apple pie backwater template is imminent – as dark and incomprehensible as the storm clouds above and as frighteningly unsettling as the tornadoes on the horizon and the oily viscosity of the rain that falls. As the storms intensify, and it transpires that Curtis appears to be the only one that can see them, so does his sense of impending doom. Severe, sweat-soaked dreams become a nightly ritual that transgress into his waking life, and despite acknowledging to himself that he is suffering from some kind of psychological breakdown, his sense of isolation from his family and community deepens. He decides to build a storm shelter that not only satisfies his instincts to protect his family, but also provides a refuge for him against an increasingly hostile and intolerant world.

Take Shelter is a gem of a film that quietly and poetically explores the pitfalls of alienation and human folly, and both Shannon and Chastain (recently lauded for her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life) hit their marks to perfection. Director Nichols’ second feature, which deservedly collected two prizes at Cannes, hardly puts a foot wrong in subtly and deftly unravelling the mind of his central character while engaging his audience with the maturity of a seasoned professional.

Take Shelter (15)

Dir: Jeff Nichols; US drama, 2011, 120 mins; Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham
Premieres July 5
Playing nationwide