'Take Shelter' is one of the many great films that I take pride in having seen when it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. I walked into it not knowing what I was about to watch, sat there completely invested in its character-driven story, and walked away praising it as the best film of that year's festival. 'Take Shelter' is a five-star film, perfect in every category – writing, directing, acting, editing, and every other aspect of its production.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, the lead character in 'Take Shelter.' Curtis and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) live a humble life. They aren't wealthy, but they get by just fine. When the film opens, they're living a skimpy life, saving every extra penny for two upcoming expenses: a week-long vacation to Myrtle Beach and an operation that could restore some of their deaf child's hearing. With things going the way they are, they're plans are going to be fulfilled with ease – but then Curtis starts having life-changing nightmares.
Have you ever had a dream that's so vivid that when you wake from it, you're not sure if it was a dream or reality? That's what Curtis begins experiencing, but they're so real, almost like premonitions, that he can't help but follow his gut feeling and start preparing for an apocalyptic storm. In his dreams, a storm is coming to destroy the world, bringing with it some sort of evil that stirs up the bad in people and animals. He sees visions of tornadoes and attacks from animals and mobs – all so realistically that he must do everything in his power to prepare for the day that this occurs, should it really happen.
What Curtis does is very smart, but the way that he goes about it is all wrong. Being a prideful man with an ego to protect, Curtis intentionally sneaks around behind Samantha's back to realize his plans. He takes out a home improvement loan, buys thousands of dollars of supplies and food storage and borrows equipment from work to excavate a huge chunk of the ground next to his rinky-dink tornado shelter.
Another potentially ego-damaging effect from Samantha knowing about his plans deals with his health. In her 30s, Curtis' mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fearing that the same gene that brought it out late in his mother's life could also be in his genes, Curtis worries about the repercussions. He knows that the dreams and paranoia could very well be caused by schizophrenia, so he studies the disease and begins meeting with a counselor for therapy and evaluation. But even knowing that schizophrenia could be the cause of his lifelike dreams, he can't help but follow his instinct and heed the preparatory warning of his subconscious.
If you only know Michael Shannon from his smaller side roles, change that. Get to know him. He's one of the very best actors out there right now. The same goes for Jessica Chastain. This is a character and relationship-driven film that hinges on you caring for these two individuals and their small family. Had these two not given the most realistic performances, 'Take Shelter' would not have carried the grave tone that it does. This is my first experience with writer/director Jeff Nichols, but he's proven to be one of the greats, worthy of looking forward to.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Classics has placed 'Take Shelter' on a Region A locked BD-50 in a single-disc vortex blue keepcase. Printed on the back of the cover art sheet is a nice image of the raging storm and flocking birds that can be seen through the case when opened. The cover art, however, is extremely cheesy. It resembles that of a direct-to-DVD disaster movie that you'd randomly find when perusing through a Redbox. The usual skippable fanfare plays on the disc before you can get to the main menu – vanity reels, FBI warnings and half a dozen trailers.
'Take Shelter' features a decent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in a wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Being a very low-budget indie movie, look isn't as stellar as other Sony Blu-rays, but it's still recommendable.
The biggest problems with the video quality – which aren't even terribly distracting - are the small and rare inconsistencies. The picture quality is always clean, crisp and highly detailed, but little flaws occasionally pop up here and there. 99 percent of the film is noise-free. There are two dark scenes that feature compression noise and two others that use a minimal amount of DNR to help clean up additional noise. The DNR scenes are so short, few and far between that they might not even be noticeable unless you're looking for them.
Colors are used in an effective and creative way. During the scenes of normal everyday living, the palette is warm. Fleshtones are natural and the greens are vibrant and alive. But whenever we see a nightmare portrayed onscreen, the palette goes cold and lifeless. Fleshtones are pale and all colors are muted by a gray hue. Paying attention to the palette is a sure sign of whether what you're seeing is a dream or not.
The only other problems that I encountered was black levels not being as strong as usual and two minor accounts of aliasing. Edge enhancement is never used and banding and artifacts never occur.
When the movie calls for it, the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is exemplary. It's just a shame that there's not a raging storm taking place during the whole movie, because that's when the audio is larger than life.
Unless we're watching a storm scene, the audio is just okay. Quiet indoor sequences don't often call for big audio, so it's to be expected. Whenever outdoors – especially during wild weather – the mix steps it up a notch. Thunder cracks loud and natural. As it crackles and sheets across the sky, you can seamlessly follow it through your theater. Flapping flocks of birds also show off this same great use of imaging. Deep bassy sounds will cause your room to rumble. The great ominous score combined with these fantastically mixed effects brings out the terror that Curtis feels from his nightmares. At times, the chaotic audio is so awesome that it's a little too close to that of a real nightmares.
My only complaint about the mix stems from the vocal track being a little too quiet. I recall the DVD screener that I watched in December having this same flaw, so I'm lead to believe that it's a directorial decision to keep you focused on the low-volume conversations – adding to the intimacy level.
Receiving such a limited release, it's understandable if you weren't able to see 'Take Shelter' in theaters. Now that it's on Blu-ray, you have no excuse for missing it. 'Take Shelter' is one of the very best films of 2011. The performances by both Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain made it onto my nominations ballot. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Chastain deserves her Oscar nomination for 'Take Shelter' over 'The Help.' Had they not given such strong performances, this character-driven drama would not have worked. As is, it's perfect, so intimate that you'll understand exactly why each character does the things that he or she does – be them good or bad - and agree with both sides of the arguments. 'Take Shelter' is one of the best relationship dramas I've ever seen. As a bonus, it's completely intense and unpredictable. The Blu-ray itself isn't perfect, but it's hard to expect a perfect five-star release from an indie movie with a tiny budget. The picture is decent, but with compression flaws and a little DNR used to clean things, it could be better. The audio mostly doesn't call for greatness, but when the scenes provide a chance for tip-top dynamic surround sound, our needs are met. Don't be distracted by the corny cover art - with more special features that most little indie movies, this disc is highly recommended.