This was probably the first year in more than a decade that I didn’t tune in for at least an hour or so of the Academy Awards. I just didn’t have a single dog in any of fights as, in addition to adhering to its long-standing formula of nominating only box-office winners or critical darlings, it seemed that, this go around, the Academy was hellbent on nominating actors based on years of service rather than what they actually did in 2011. This meant that more deserving performances than usual went completely by the boards, and, in my opinion, one of the biggest snubs came in the overlooked performance of Michael Shannon in the equally disregarded dark psychological drama, Take Shelter.
Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, a soft-spoken, well-mannered utility worker who, with wife, Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), and daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), live a simple, satisfying life in rural Ohio. That is until Curtis begins suffering from frighteningly realistic nightmares about a catastrophic storm and its aftermath. The nightmares increase in intensity and detail, with the storm containing a viscous rain that somehow turns anything it touches violent, and, when Curtis dreams of his faithful dog turning on them after being exposed to the rain, he finds he can no longer share his home with the animal, and blows off work to build a make-shift kennel in his yard. Matters are made worse when Curtis begins to experience hallucinations, both visual (swarming birds flying in strange patterns) and auditory (violent crashes of thunder on cloudless days). Curtis fears that he may be succumbing to the same schizophrenia that lead to his mother (a cameo by Picket Fences alum, Kathy Baker) being committed to a psychiatric facility twenty years earlier, and, fearful of sharing this revelation with Samantha, secretly begins counseling. Despite the treatment, Curtis begins to fixate on the rundown storm shelter in his yard, and decides that, to protect his family, he must expand and fortify it – a project that forces him not only to mortgage his home, but risk losing his livelihood. Curtis ropes in his friend and co-worker, Dewart (Shannon’s fellow Boardwalk Empire co-star, Shea Wigham), who reluctantly helps him dig out the storm cellar with machines “borrowed” from work, but, after a dream in which Dewart attacks him after being exposed to the mysterious rain, Curtis requests that Dewart be transferred to another team, leading to a confrontation that not only costs Curtis his best friend and his job, but may ultimately cost him the family he’s so obsessed with protecting.
Take Shelter is a harrowing look at just how far a man will go to protect his family from danger, whether it’s real or imagined. Tonally, the film feels like the love child of Donnie Darko and Field of Dreams, sharing the former’s dreamy aesthete and the latter’s light sense of the supernatural. There’s a constant sense of dread in Take Shelter – one that becomes all-consuming by the film’s final act – but the fear doesn’t revolve so much around the coming of the potential apocalypse Curtis envisions, but, rather, what will happen if it doesn’t come. As a viewer, I found myself so hopelessly invested in Curtis’ situation that I found myself rooting for him to be right, and for the world-ending storms of his nightmares to wash away those who doubted him. It’s a testament to the strength of Shannon’s performance – one that runs the gamut from whisper-quiet subtlety to nerve-jangling intensity. There’s a moment in the film where Shannon just totally unleashes his pent up despair on a group of hapless onlookers where, and the effect is nothing short of soul-shattering. What Shannon does in this scene – the ferocity with which he spews every spit-flecked word – man, it just transcends simple “acting”. I actually started to cry – I mean, full on cry – during this scene, not only due to the fact that it was incredibly moving (which it is), but because I realized that I’d just witnessed one of the most pure and honest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.
Take Shelter comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Sony, and features a lush and vibrant 2.35:1 1080p transfer that stands amongst the finest the studio has offered. Writer/director, Jeff Nichols, and cinematographer, Adam Stone, worked together to craft a gorgeous slice of “big sky” country, with almost oppressively blue skies and wide-open spaces – beautiful imagery that stands in stark contrast to the horrific visions in Curtis’ head. The transfer recreates these scenes wonderfully, with deep contrast and rich colors, while delivering exceptional levels of fine detail throughout. The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is an aural smorgasbord, brimming with discrete effects, thunderous bass, and organic sounding dialogue and environmental effects. Quite simply, this is a reference quality disc through and through. Not bad when one considers the film’s “meager” $1 million dollar budget.
Extras include a conversational and informative commentary track with Nichols and Shannon, as well as a short behind-the-scenes featurette, a pair of deleted scenes, and the film’s trailer. The most significant extra is a Q&A session with Nichols and Shannon, which compliments the commentary nicely. All of the bonus features are presented in 1080p.
Despite being overlooked by the Academy (what else is new?), Take Shelter is easily one of the best films of 2011. It’s a dark-yet-oddly uplifting psychological drama that will reward viewers with a performance for the ages. Sony’s Blu-ray presentation is just extraordinary, earning this film my highest possible recommendation. Seriously, folks; do yourself a favor and pick this one up.