This review was originally published on January 28, 2011…
Four years after unveiling his debut feature, Shotgun Stories, writer/director Jeff Nichols has released his sophomore effort, a psychological thriller that mixes his minimalistic style with riveting thrills. Academy Award nominee, Michael Shannon (who also starred in Shotgun Stories) plays Curtis LaForce, a hardworking but reserved family man suffering from a series of horrific nightmares. The nightmares are tied together by a dangerous storm which stands to harm himself and his family. When the nightmares begin creeping into his real life, Curtis is afraid that he’s suffering from schizophrenia like his mother. However, he’s even more afraid of the storm that he’s convinced is coming.
The film’s strength comes from its combination of highs and lows. The minimalism that made Stories so compelling works again here. Curtis works a blue collar job. His wife, Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life), takes care of their daughter and sells her sewing projects in town. Life continues as normal until Curtis falls asleep. Whether it’s from a vicious animal attack or a terrifying abduction, Curtis’s family appears to be is imminent danger the second raindrops begin to hit the ground. The sound of thunder is quickly associated with bad things to come. But while the nightmares are scary, what’s even more troubling are the moments where Nichols leaves the viewer in conscious/unconscious limbo, not knowing if Curtis is asleep or awake or if that even matters. Methodically, the director unravels his characters’ lives creating what becomes a constant state of uneasiness in both their minds and the viewers’.
And while the film boasts quite a few noteworthy performances, none stand out more than Shannon’s. Curtis is a man who chooses his words carefully. He’s closed off without being withholding. And there’s no one better to fill a role like that than Michael Shannon. He portrays unshaking responsibility like no one else, especially in Shelter. A descent into madness begs to be overplayed with wild eyes and manic movements. But Shannon internalizes the fear and self-doubt, building Curtis into a well-rounded man whose thoughts are constantly guessed at by those around him.
Shelter refuses to become a stereotypical genre film. It twists the conception of what a thriller should be and the result is a strong film with enough substance to keep you thinking and enough scares to keep you jumping.