How does one interpret writer/director Jeff Nichols’ “Taking Shelter”? A lot depends upon what you believe, particularly since it’s not readily apparent what Nichols in his story believes.
Set in a small town in Ohio, the movie focuses on a blue-collar family man, Curtis LaForche. Portrayed by Michael Shannon, Curtis is a man of few words, emotionally constipated, but still a good man. Shannon is a tall angular man and at six-foot-three one wagers that he’s not had much to fear from bullies. His jaw is brutishly square and his brow low beneath a deep shag of sandy brown hair. You don’t imagine him in a tux easily, but you could easily see him pounding lesser men into the ground. Whatever would frighten such a man, should be twice as terrifying for your average-sized man and three-times for your average American woman.
Curtis is having dreams, but he hesitates to call them nightmares. Nichols toys with our cinematic expectations. Are we in a Hitchcockian thriller where birds can attack and hold a town hostage? Are we in a zombie movie where neighbors become brain-munching frenemies? Are we in a demon-possession movie where one’s spouse becomes homicidal? Or is Curtis seeing into the uncertain future?
We aren’t sure and, Curtis himself seems unsure. His mother fell victim to delusions at about the same age and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Are his dreams visions? Are they metaphors or madness?
Curtis wrestles with is problems and slowly breaks away from his co-workers, his beloved dog and his neighbors. His tunnel vision focuses on saving his family although it also nearly costs him his relationship with his wife.
Nichols’ doesn’t give us easy answers and shows us normal, everyday scenes that are just slightly off-kilter. Sometimes it’s just the soundtrack (original music by David Wingo) sometimes it is the slightly cold bluish cast (cinematography by Adam Stone) or the overexposed, harshly lit indoor scenes.
True to his build up, Nichols doesn’t give us a neat package or an ending that answers all the questions raised, but he does show one thing a family can do when the world seems on the brink of personal or natural disaster—draw together and weather the storm with the ones you love. Like “Joe Versus the Volcano,” this movie calls for people to value family and friends in the face of coming disaster.
In April, I was a VIP guest of the Ebertfest and this is my report.